Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Have Ambulance, Will Travel

I am amazed to think that we are coming up to the 100th anniversary of the War To End All Wars. I've been intrigued by the WWI era and I frequently read mysteries that use the days after the war and into the 1920s as a backdrop for unusual themes and interesting characters who inhabit the shadowy world of crime fiction.

One of the sub-genres of mystery fiction is that involving the plucky young woman who has the foresight to cast off the shackles that were keeping women at home, barefoot, pregnant and yada yada. Class barriers at this time were dissolving for many reasons, only one of which was the fact that an entire generation of Britain's young men had been wiped out and women were stepping in to fill the breaches. There were a few of these young ladies who cast off their pasts and leapt to the defense of the good guys, managing to get themselves close to the front lines of the war in France, either as ambulance drivers or nurses.

Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher was one of the early protagonists who fit this mold. I first encountered Phryne Fisher when she took her first case that started with an ocean voyage to Australia in Cocaine Blues. This mystery introduced Phryne as a wealthy young woman with some relation to the British nobility. It was the decade of the 1920s and the Honourable Phryne was at loose ends in London.

Phryne had not always been rich; she was actually born in Australia in circumstances of poverty, but her father came into an inheritance and the Fishers left their privation behind them. Phryne was named after a courtesan of extraordinary beauty who lived in Ancient Greece in the 4th century BC. This lovely was purported to be the model for some famous statues of Venus.

After finishing school, Phryne went to France and joined a French women's ambulance unit during WWI and was duly decorated for bravery. Phryne being quite beautiful, she also worked for awhile as an artist's model. After the success of solving her first murder case, she settles down in Melbourne, Australia, in a house with the number 221B and has no problems finding clients. She has a certain code of conduct, but she does enjoy the company of lovers. She also drives a Hispano-Suiza, one of the few in her part of the country. Greenwood has drawn a vivid portrait of a very intriguing sleuth with an excellent sense of place and time and I have enjoyed almost all of the 18 books in this series. I have kept two for a rainy day because I don't tire of Phryne.

Another intrepid young lady of fiction who has fled home and hearth is the American, Jade del Cameron, whose character has hints of Beryl Markham and Isak Dinesen. This series of six books so far is written by Suzanne Arruda. Jade was raised on a ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. But we are introduced to her in Mark of the Lion when she is attached to the French Army as an ambulance driver. Her mantra when the shells are pelting down is "I only occupy one tiny space, the shells have all the rest of France to hit."

After surviving an air raid by the skin of her teeth Jade takes on the dying wish of a mortally wounded pilot who asks her to find his brother and thus begins her career as a detective. Her investigation leads her to Nairobi, Africa. Later she comes back to Africa as a photographer, but mysteries and occasional murders require her sleuthing skills. She is an intrepid soul and counts marksmanship, knowledge of motor mechanics learned in the ambulance corps and piloting an airplane among her abilities.
The backdrop of Africa enlivens this series. Del Cameron is frequently either going into the wilds on safari or on photographic jobs in the interior, while at the same time clashing with the staid British ideas of how a woman should behave. She is gutsy enough to try everything and has no fear when she has to pilot an airplane. Jade is very different from Phryne Fisher and both series have a lot to recommend them.

Perhaps the best known of our mold-shattering young women is Jacqueline Winspear's amazing Maisie Dobbs. There are eight books chronicling her adventures. She is introduced in Maisie Dobbs, which was the Agatha Award winner for Best First Novel in 2003. Maisie was the daughter of a costermonger (someone who sells fruit and vegetables from a wheel barrow) and she went into service at the age of 13 as a maid for an aristocratic family in London. She was very bright and, with the help of her employers, she left their service, went to school and later trained in the nursing profession.

While a battlefield nurse during the war, part of a Voluntary Aid Detachment, Maisie was injured both in body and spirit. She returned to London after the war to work with her mentor, a well-known detective, Dr. Maurice Blanche, at Discrete Investigations. When Blanche retires, Maisie opens her own detective agency. She is cautious, concerned about the state England is in but she does need to get around and so has an MG as a pair of wheels.

In her first case, she is asked to look into why several severely scarred veterans are dying unexpectedly at a therapy retreat on a farm. Maisie sees that perhaps the murderer may be as much a victim of the war as the vets. This story makes us very aware that wars don't stop on the date the history books give us; in fact, they never end. The repercussions are like the splash of a pebble in a brook, ever widening. Winspear does the history of the social changes that came about after the Great War beautifully without sermonizing.

I won't make a prediction about which of these heroines you would like best. Perhaps it is important to know that there were real women who could have been the models for characters such as these. One of them is Hélène Dutrieu (10 July 1877 – 26 June 1961), known as the Belgian Hawk, who was a cycling world champion and stunt person, pioneer aviator, wartime ambulance driver and a director of a military hospital. After the war she was a journalist.


  1. The Phryne Fisher books are lightweight, but so much fun. She's a terrific character; self-confident, stylish and a good sense of humor.

    I've gone off the Maisie Dobbs series, though. The character is so deadly serious all the time and it began to be a struggle for me to get through the books. The last one I read was The Mapping of Love and Death. Most people seem to love this series, though, so I guess it's just me.

  2. I have not read the last two either, but I agree with you on the seriousness of Maisie's nature. I wondered why the author kept Maisie from having relationships with some hope of a personal attachment. It would add depth to her character.

  3. I have yet to read a Maisie Dobbs mystery, but I will! I had the chance to meet Jacqueline Winspear at a conference this past summer. She's a great teacher. SMM's comment above about how serious Maisie Dobbs is, is interesting. Winspear is a rather serious person herself -- on the proper side, very British, I'd say.

  4. GACK!
    Sorry to post this here but today I can't access 3rd Degree (discussion) posts. I've signed in.

    The strange thing----- if I click on a 'label' on the right hand side of that empty page the entry comes up.

    My computer?

  5. cave76, thanks, because I thought maybe it was my computer! As bloggers, we can see the 3rd Degree comments in storage, but nothing appears on the 3rd Degree page. We're trying to figure out what's going on.

  6. Cave76, Georgette, I tried twice this morning to post to 3rd degree. Thought I had gone over the edge.

  7. Apparently, Google's Blogger team has been working on the program and that's what caused the problem with 3rd Degree. I hope they fix it soon.

    Lisa, it's interesting to hear Jacqueline Winspear is a serious person. That makes sense. I agree with MC, too, that it would add a lot to the Maisie Dobbs character if she were allowed to develop relationships. But, book after book, it just doesn't seem to happen.

  8. Thanks --- good to know it's being worked on.
    I created a Ning site a few years ago and every time Ning updates it or 'improves' it----- it goes seriously wonky for a while and some of the features never get back to 'normal'. Sigh

  9. MC, I have yet to read any of Kerry Greenwood's books, although the covers are very tempting. Clicking around this morning I found this:

    Does the actress look like your idea of Phryne?

  10. Periphera, I've read all the Phryne Fisher books and I'd say this actress looks like Phryne only in the hairdo. This actress looks way too fresh-faced. Phryne should look more exotic, seductive and sophisticated. But I'm excited about the series and hope we'll be seeing it in the US.

  11. All of the actors look perfect for the stories. They have left out Miss Fishers Chinese lover though,

    Of course she has no Aunt and the story is quite farfetched. It is always amazing to me that in such a successful series they pick a plot that has no relation to the books. I will say I have not read all of them, buy have read most of them!

    Thanks for the website. I will go back and look some more.