Review: Unnatural Habits

Explaining his reason for wrapping up the Kenzie-Gennaro series, Dennis Lehane allegedly says, “Have you every heard anyone say ‘The seventeenth book in the series was my favorite’?”

Perhaps Mr Lehane lacks Ms Greenwood’s chutzpah as I’m here to say Unnatural Habits, the nineteenth book in the Phryne Fisher series, is my favourite to date.

The central plot concerns the disappearance from Melbourne of a swathe of golden-haired girls, some of them pregnant, and the ambitious but not at all streetwise girl reporter who has taken it upon herself to investigate. But as Ms Greenwood has explained, her reading often takes her off on tangents and there are several subplots involving the ‘gentlemen only’ Blue Cat Club, a separatist women’s commune in Bacchus Marsh, and a vigilante who is going around anaesthetising abusers of women and sterilising them while they are under.

In addition to the usual appeal of Phryne Fisher novels – the sparkling heroine and her loyal entourage, the insights into the Melbourne of 1929 rendered in loving detail – I was particularly interested in stories surrounding the Abbotsford Convent where wayward young women, some of them pregnant, were sent to work in the laundries. I had a great-aunt who was a nun at the Convent (now an arts precinct) in the 1970s. We used to visit her often, and I have fond memories of ‘the Magdalens’, women in their 50s sent away to the convent as wayward girls and never claimed by their families. These women spoiled us kids rotten; it wasn’t until years later I realised they may well have had their own babies taken from them and adopted out.

I also enjoyed the insight into Melbourne’s queer history afforded by the role of the Blue Cat Club in the narrative. The site of this former members’ only club is on the corner of Centre Place (formerly Calico Alley) and Flinders Lane in Melbourne’s CBD near where I work, and I love imagining it in its former glory: all crystal chandeliers, marble copies of the Apollo Belvedere and the David, and in the air ‘the scent of patchouli, so favoured by dear Oscar.’

Author PM Newton once described Phryne Fisher novels as ‘cosies with teeth’, which is particularly apt in the case of Unnatural Habits, given what Phryne does to her lover Lin Chung after witnessing the appalling conditions to which the ‘bad girls’ in the laundries of the Abbotsford Convent are subjected.

There is a darker shade to Unnatural Habits and in my opinion, it becomes the Hon Miss Fisher very well.

Unnatural Habits
Kerry Greenwood
335 pages
ISBN 978 1 74237 243 3
Allen & Unwin, 2012

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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5 Responses to Review: Unnatural Habits

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Angela – So glad you liked this one! I really like both of Greenwood’s sleuths (although I must admit I know her Corinna Chapman better than I do Phryne Fisher). And you’ve put your finger on part of what makes the books work (at least for me): well-drawn protagonist, terrific and authentic look at 1929 Melbourne, and interesting sub-plots. You’ve reminded me too that I must catch up on this series.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Margot, I am much more familiar with Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels than the Corinna Chapman series – and thus the world balances itself! Several of the Phryne Fisher novels were dramatised for television here in 2012 and the combination of brilliant casting and high production values (oh, the costumes!) is sure to win Greenwood a new legion of fans.

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      • Margot Kinberg says:

        So I hear, Angela. I’ve just gotten access to a couple of them here and so looking forward to experiencing them for myself.

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  2. kathy d. says:

    I would love to see the TV episodes of the Phryne Fisher books. I haven’t gotten into reading this series, although a friend loves them. However, I adore Corinna Chapman, her co-tenants, her bakery and her cats. So, I must write this book on my TBR list and look for it, although reading about women oppressed in convent laundries can be a tough read. A friend’s mother grew up in a convent in Ireland and worked in the laundry.
    I will look for the TV episodes wherever I can; they sound enticing.

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    • I believe a second series of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries will be filmed in 2013, Kathy. Fingers crossed the DVDs of the series will make it to the USA. Perhaps ask Margot where she sourced hers…

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