Ivory cloche seated smartly atop her onyx bob, a seductive splash of red on her lips, and a swirl of white marabou wrapped around her shoulders, I first saw Phryne (pronounced fry-nee) Fisher lingering in the background of my Netflix account as I was looking for a new series to watch. Phryne, as I would find out, was the protagonist of the Australian series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and she was absolutely fabulous.
Set in 1920s Australia, each episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries costs about one million dollars to make, and includes extraordinarily elaborate and historically accurate sets, props, and costumes–real 1920s vehicles, high-quality costumes and hairstyles, technology-free sleuthing techniques. The storylines include high-society matrons and factory workers alike.
If the cloche, bob, and red lips did not give it away, Phryne Fisher–played by the utterly perfect Essie Davis–is one of those divinely glamorous, scandalous “modern” women. She is also, as she says, a “lady detective,” a private investigator for hire–though often doesn’t take compensation as she is independently wealthy. She is witty and clever, with an encyclopedic knowledge of crime and forensics often topping that of the local police department, much to their dismay. These aren’t dainty little crimes, either; many of them are often quite grisly, like strangulations in locker rooms, victims bludgeoned to death, bodies burned alive at vineyards, and the list goes on. She never faints or even turns away, much unlike the others around her.
I remember the instant I fell in love with the series: Phryne was seated in a prison across from her nemesis, Murdoch Foyle–a man who, balding and likely aged into his early fifties, is terrifying solely for the fact that he does not physically present as terrifying–who has been imprisoned on the grounds that he allegedly kidnapped, and likely disposed of, Phryne’s sister Jane when they were children.
“Whatever horrors you visited on her, I have imagined ten-fold. And given the chance, I would do the same to you without smearing my lipstick.”
And that was it. I was done. Hooked. Phryne had the ability to crush a person with a single sentence, her words dripping with fierceness, intelligence smacking someone in the face with a pristine, white-gloved hand. And man, could the woman dress. (A period costume enthusiast to my core, I sat in awe of not only what crime she would solve next, but what she would wear while doing it. A white pantsuit and silk blouse? A plum velvet gown with navy velvet, white fur-lined coat? A green sequined dress shivering with fringe? Yes to all, courtesy of the show’s brilliant costume designer, Marion Boyce.) After the work day was done, I would sit in front of my computer watching Phryne solve crime after crime after crime, snatching her small gold pistol from her garter belt and cocking it confidently in the direction of wrongdoers. Suddenly it would be three o’clock in the morning and I would have to tear myself away. I was sublimely happy watching, but where on earth did this series come from?
Originally it came from the mind of author Kerry Greenwood, who has been writing the Phryne Fisher series since 1989. Producers Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox were intrigued by the books because they drew a diverse fan base–Phryne was loved by women young and old throughout Australia. So Eagger and Cox gave the books a go, and the first episode aired in February 2012. Now, two years or so later, the series has just finished its second season and you’d be wrong if you said I didn’t watch every single episode.
What I love most about Phryne is her independence. Despite 1920s etiquette and its placement of women, Phryne engages in behaviors frowned upon in women while still remaining a perfect lady in the eyes of high society: she wears pants, drives, carries and knows how to use a pistol, flies an airplane, masquerades as a burlesque performer and a Latvian anarchist and, having no desire to get married (gasp!), uses “family planning.”
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries also addresses a number of women’s issues relevant in the 1920s that are still sadly relevant today, deftly handled with a raised eyebrow toward culture by Eagger, Cox, and their staff of writers. For example, in one episode Phryne teaches judo instead of table manners to a group of schoolgirls so they can defend themselves against male predators; Phryne’s faithful, traditional, saintly companion Dot wrestles with whether or not to marry her sweetheart because she wants to keep working, much to his confusion; and Phryne is often dismissed by various police officers as a silly, bored woman with nothing to do but bother them (though she always proves them wrong).
Male-driven shows are such a part of our consciousness that sometimes we barely notice the disparate number of strong females. I myself didn’t even notice it until tweeting with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries writer Emma Steele, when she said she loved working on a series with strong female characters. And I thought to myself, surely there must be others? Who are not married and don’t work as a sidekick to a male partner or a part of a team, and just solve the crimes on their own? And I could think of precious few. In comparison to male-driven procedurals, there are so few female-driven procedurals that seeing a woman in such a position is sadly more rare. Many have appeared in recent years: Kerry Washington on Scandal, Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander on Rizzoli and Isles, Kyra Sedgwick on The Closer (now over), Piper Perabo on Covert Affairs, Callie Thorne on Necessary Roughness (canceled), Holly Hunter on Saving Grace (canceled), and so on (though, what’s the deal with most of them being on satellite networks like TNT or USA and not on major networks like NBC, ABC, CBS, or FOX?). And then there’s the older school of Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote and Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, among however many others. But they are nowhere near as prevalent as shows featuring men as their head detectives.
What I want to believe is that American audiences would eat up Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries like Australian audiences have (it reaches over one million viewers per episode which, while not a large number by American standards, is very high in Australia) and would enjoy seeing a strong, elegant female detective solve crimes by herself on basic cable. But for right now, it doesn’t seem to be that way. Unless there is an American version of Miss Fisher’s in the works and I just don’t know it? But I am all too aware that this is very well just wishful thinking. Why aren’t American audiences ready for something like this? Why isn’t this something they would want to consume? We know and have already discussed answers to questions like these at length using words like patriarchy and misogyny and fear. I do believe there’s hope, though, and at this stage, I choose to be positive. So here I am, writing an article about how much I love this television show about a strong, elegant female detective, and I hope that other women will read it and watch the show and agree and together we can make something happen.
So until then, I will be starting my very own Phryne Fisher Appreciation Society. Marabou wraps are optional, but cunning wit is absolutely required.
If you would like to view Season 1 of “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” it is available on Netflix, and has also been appearing on various PBS affiliates throughout the country. It is currently under consideration for a third season, and if it is picked up again, episodes may not air until 2015.
Elyssa Goodman is a writer and photographer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Marie Claire, VICE, New York Magazine's The Cut, Glamour, Men's Journal, and many others.