For TV mystery fans looking for something to occupy the summer hours, you could do worse than Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
The Australian import, based on the novels of Kerry Greenwood, has certain similarities to Murder, She Wrote. Except instead of focusing on a widowed matron in New England, it features a proto-cougar in 1920s Melbourne.
Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) inherited a lot of money and a title that permits her to be introduced as “The Honourable Miss Fisher” (though only her status-obsessed aunt ever does that). Upon returning to Melbourne after years abroad, she immediately gets drawn into a murder investigation involving an old friend’s husband. After cracking that case, Miss Fisher sets herself up as a “lady detective” to embark upon more adventures.
Miss Fisher assembles her inner circle pretty quickly. That first adventure brought Dot (Ashleigh Cummings), her paid companion/sidekick, into her orbit. It also had her cross paths with Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), the police detective who always seems to draw the murders that Miss Fisher finds herself embroiled with. Jack has his own sidekick in goofy, good-hearted Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Bert). That quartet forms the nucleus of Melbourne’s murder-busting society, making their way through cases involving a magazine writer, a female racecar driver, a football hero, an escort, a vineyard owner’s brother and a bookstore patron, among others. One might think that knowing so many people directly connected to murders might prompt Miss Fisher to re-think her social circle. But then, she as often stumbles across a corpse (almost literally sometimes) as she rides to the aid of an acquaintance.
Along the way, Miss Fisher builds a coterie that includes her supportive butler (named, of course, Mr. Butler), a pair of proletarian cabmen, a teenaged ward and doctor pal Mac. Phryne is a vanguard feminist who eschews marriage but happily beds various of the men who cross her path. She’s also a renaissance woman, whose interests include various performing arts, amateur aviation, underwriting a club for women adventurers, wearing elaborate period fashions and rescuing a variety of young women in distress.
This kind of enterprise can devolve into ridiculousness if not handled right. Fortunately, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries takes just the right approach. It features the usual genre sticking points (tortured plot convolutions, frequent coincidences) but glosses over nicely them with its winking attitude and abundance of retro style. Most of the resolutions aren’t especially difficult to unravel, but the episodes benefit from the period setting and atmosphere. Jazz Age Melbourne is an especially appealing venue for U.S. viewers who have had their fill of American and British settings.
But more importantly, the show works because of Davis. She’s a sparkling, energetic lead who holds the production together with a lot of personality and finesse. In lesser hands, viewers might roll their eyes each time Miss Fisher busts out yet another heretofore unknown skill, but Davis sells it all quite effectively. She brings fun and humor to the proceedings and gets the viewer involved in the action, regardless of how unlikely the set-up may be. Davis also does a nice job with some of the show’s darker material, especially Miss Fisher’s first season encounters with the man she believed responsible for her sister’s murder.
Davis and Page have strong chemistry. The writers have Jack get over his professional objections to Miss Fisher’s snooping pretty quickly and he comes to prize her insights. The duo spar and parry quite entertainingly. The writers don’t waste much time in denying the spark between the characters. Instead, they rely on other factors (his estranged wife, her commitment issues) to keep the duo just barely at arms’ length. Instead, they leave the toil of having an actual relationship to their sidekicks. Only the coldest of hearts would fail to be charmed by Hugh and Dot’s sweet-natured courtship.
The writers also have a gratifying respect for viewers’ intelligence. There’s not a lot of the “let me explain to you exactly where you went wrong” speechifying often seen in the genre. The scripts incorporate numerous real world elements from the period and trust that the audience can connect certain dots without having it all spelled out.
Note that the first two seasons are available in the U.S. on Netflix and certain PBS stations. The delayed third season is only now airing in Australia and will arrive here at a later date.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries may not be revolutionary, but mystery fans will have no problem blazing their way through these episodes.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on June 12, 2015.