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The Golden Age of Detective Fiction occurred during a time of great social upheaval and changes in the political landscape and investigative practices. Heroes were sought during the interwar years between 1920 and 1939; writers including Agatha Christie obliged breathing life into characters like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Major developments in investigative methods coincided with the great boom in literary whodunit mysteries.
It is impossible to control the larger narrative but characters including Poirot helped make sense of a chaotic world through pragmatic and deductive reasoning. Adaptations of these stories have been a constant source for film, TV, and radio over the last 80 years — including Kenneth Branagh's upcoming Death on the Nile. There is comfort in the familiar, but a new host of detectives have joined the ranks of Christie's iconic lineup.
These contemporary stories still use the Golden Age period but put a new spin on this familiar era. One of the most enticing is the Australian lady detective, the Honorable Phryne Fisher. Escapist TV at its best and most potent, I binge-watched all three seasons of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries over November of 2016. And during this time of great uncertainty, I find myself drawn to this character once again.
Based on the novels by Kerry Greenwood, Phryne made her debut in the 1989 story Cocaine Blues. The TV series adaptation premiered in 2012, which kicked off with Phryne's return to Australia and the case that drew her into this deadly world. A well-traveled woman, Phryne can fly a plane, dance the tango, and solve a locked-room mystery. She wears pants and has an incredible sex life with an array of beautiful men. Played by Essie Davis, she exudes passion and confidence, never afraid of leaning into her femininity while fully understanding that society would rather she shut up. Packing a gold pistol, Phryne tends to run toward danger and a proclivity for helping those in strife. A woman with layers, a tragic childhood experience has no doubt informed her desire to solve crime beyond the adventure of it all.
Working alongside Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), the will-they-won't-they tension bubbles alongside plenty of romantic dalliances and flings. The eye banging communication is off the charts and it is impressive how the show maintains the tension, all while Phryne still has a very active sex life. Over three seasons, the pair have solved many murders with motives ranging from petty grievances to crimes of passion. Miss Fisher sometimes swerves into Indiana Jones territory, particularly in the just-released movie (now on Acorn TV), Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears. Ancient prophecies and curses have come into play before this extended event, dishing out a much-needed dose of fantasy adventure featuring a lead who doesn't let the patriarchy dictate the rules to her. The best-dressed investigator on TV, her closet is packed with party couture and fabulous pants
As with Babylon Berlin, WWI horrors are still fresh in the mind of the protagonists while political unrest also factors in. More procedural and playful in tone, season-long stories also inform some of the mystery, including the murder of Phryne's sister Jane when they were children. Another similarity between the two shows is how horror, pseudoscience, and ghost tales provide the foundation for some of the crimes while holding a mirror up to society.
For a taster, here are 10 spooky episodes of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries to watch now on Acorn TV.
Ruddy Gore (Season 1, Episode 6)
The theater is home to many superstitious rituals from calling Macbeth "the Scottish play" to avoiding the words "good luck.” Therefore, it doesn't seem too out of the ordinary for a ghost to be blamed for a series of what appears to be accidents — but is far from coincidental. When an actor drops down dead mid-performance, it is fortunate that Phryne has taken her companion Dot (Ashleigh Cummings) to see this operetta as a birthday treat. Well, less fortunate for Dot as this is no way to celebrate. It is rumored the ghost of an actress who died by apparent suicide is the culprit but despite the ethereal presence and spirit sightings, the answer is closer to home.
Blood and Circuses (Season 1, Episode 11)
A circus is a classic location for a crime series — a tried and tested favorite from Pushing Daisies to Bones. For Phryne, the personal horror that befell her many years before continues to have a ripple effect from the young girl she takes into her care to the crimes she investigates. She is far from impervious to fear even if she possesses an inherent fearlessness. When she was a child, her younger sister Janey was kidnapped and murdered while they were at the circus. The serial killer who committed this crime is in prison, but has been taunting Phryne all season — he never confessed to this murder and is doing time for another kidnapping. Still blaming herself for not looking out for Janey this episode connects past with the present, kicking off an arc that will take us to the end of the season.
Murder in the Dark (Season 1, Episode 12)
In the second-ever episode, Phryne took in Jane (Ruby Rees-Wemyss) to stop her from being sent back to Child Services after she was caught as a stowaway on a train. The shared name with her dead sister is a coincidence, but this decision was fueled by the notion of a second chance. A faked death and a costume party lead to a fraught night, which sees young Jane dressed as Little Red Riding Hood with a figure in a wolf's costume as a potential threat. The tension isn't all laced with fear, as before the lady detective opens a taunting note, she has a moment with Jack that can best be described as potent.
King Memses' Curse (Season 1, Episode 13)
Serial killer Murdoch Foyle (Nicholas Bell) only needs one more victim to complete a reincarnation prophecy that is following Ancient Egyptian mythology. Tombs and treasures with the promise of eternal life is a dangerous combination in the wrong megalomaniac hands. A twisted visionary, Foyle resorts to old methods of murder, which makes him even more sadistic. Four goddesses are what he thinks he requires to protect his journey to the afterlife, Phryne is the last on his list. If she makes it out alive, will she finally stop being haunted by the past?
Death Comes Knocking (Season 2, Episode 2)
Another spirit from the great beyond is considered a potential suspect when a séance leads to murder. Aunt Prudence (Miriam Margolyes) invites a Spirit Society to contact a relative from the great beyond. Roland died in battle during WWI, but the truth of the matter is a lot more complicated than death by enemy fire. The effects of mustard gas and PTSD affect the living, but the murderer is of flesh and blood — or rather murderers as the multiple deaths in this episode are at the hands of multiple people. Creepy graveyards at night and a suggestion that some of Mrs. Bolonsky's psychic skills are legit only add to the mystical undertones.
The Blood of Juana the Mad (Season 2, Episode 8)
A 16th-century manuscript is at the heart of an episode that involves antique swords, blood-soaked grass, and university students and lecturers alike unhappy with a female classmate. Matters of the heart further complicate the narrative as Jack and Phryne are experiencing a fractured partnership — he thought she had died in the previous episode and can't reconcile what he perceives as reckless behavior with how he feels about her. It is more angsty than other episodes, but it deepens this dynamic in an interesting fashion that doesn't compromise who Phryne is.
Framed For Murder (Season 2, Episode 9)
The silent film lot murder was a major plot of Babylon Berlin's third season and while this Miss Fisher venture doesn't have the same slasher or German Expressionist overtones, it does highlight how creepy the dark corners of this setting can be. Not only that, but it also reveals how easy it is for a prop or even the highly flammable film stock itself can be turned into a weapon. Luckily, Phryne is on hand with her golden gun at the ready and the perfect ensemble to make her directorial debut. Actress Essie Davis is no stranger to portraying someone that is part of a company as she played Lady Crane in Game of Thrones Season 6 — sadly, she did not last too long. Horror fans will also likely recognize her from The Babadook, in which she delivered a stunning performance as the mother at the center of the story.
Murder Under the Mistletoe (Season 2, Episode 13)
Christmas in July sounds like a fun annual event but a killer is picking off each guest using methods from the song "The 12 Days of Christmas." This isn't the gift you would expect from your true love nor does it come with a returns policy. A snowstorm cuts them off from the rest of the world making the situation more precarious as the bodies begin to stack up. Suspense is increased when secret underground tunnels are discovered, which means the killer is one of them. However, there is still time for some light flirting between Phryne and Jack because even when it tips into scary territory the burgeoning romance cannot be killed.
Death Defying Feats (Season 3, Episode 1)
Dot doesn't have much luck when it comes to attending live shows and not witnessing an onstage murder. A night out at the Cavalcade of Mysteries ends with a guillotine trick-gone-wrong after someone has tampered with the safety mechanism. Stepping in to help save the show her father has invested in, Phryne takes on the death-defying Miraculous Mermaid underwater trick — even though it has historically ended in the death of at least one past participant. Giving Houdini a run for his money, Phryne has other pressing concerns including a romantic misunderstanding and dealing with her wayward father.
Death Do Us Part (Season 3, Episode 8)
Another murderer is targeting the Fisher family, which coincides with the death of a scientist at the Wren Institute of Science. Faith and scientific discovery are at odds as new theories and evidence about the universe call into question the existence of God. An eerie glowing substance adds to the mystery of this murder, but once again, the motives are rooted in tradition. With dueling conflicts at play, the presence of an escaped killer only adds to the season (and series) finale edge-of-your-seat thrills. High stakes lead to heightened emotion, and Miss Fisher excels when it is juggling romance, fantasy, and the horrors of this dangerous world.