Phryne excused herself and went out. She came out with a kaki kitbag which she had not opened in ten years. She emptied it onto the table, on the map of Paris. Bert sorted through the contents. French identity card. Scatter of French coins, sous and centimes. British army tunic with all rank badges removed. Leather belt. Certificate of completion of a driving course. Box containing her Médaille d’Honneur. Cake of dark amber scented soup. Driver’s cap. Letter of discharge from a military hospital. Pocket watch. Address book with attached pencil (broken). Five photographs. He spread them out.
The first was a group of uniformed girls, squinting in the sun. The central woman, a massive, muscular figure, held a board which said “Third Ambulance Drivers”.
‘That’s Toupie,’ said Phryne. ‘That’s doll Wilde. That’s me.’. Bert nodded. Despite the cap and the youth of the face, it was definitely Phryne.
‘I heard about her,’ said Billo. ‘They say she went across the Itie border in trousers and they picked her up for being a woman impersonating a man. The she went back over the border in a skirt and they picked her up for being a man impersonating a woman. Good old Toupie! Them Frenchies were very fond of Toupie. Called her Lieutenant Toupie.’
‘The next picture,’ said Phryne, ‘is me and my ambulance.’
‘Blanky big brute of a thing,’ observed Jhinnie. ‘How did you steer it with them thin little wrists? Beg pardon,’ he added, conscious of making a personal remark.
‘It’s leverage, not strength,’ Phryne explained. They nodded.
‘This is Paris,’ said Bert, looking at the next photograph. ‘That’s a music hall, isn’t it? One of them ball musette. We went to one of them. Who’s the block?’
There stood René, hat cocked over one eye, button accordion in his hands. A rush of feeling swept over Phryne: regret, loss, fury. The photo could not show his dark skin, his snapping bright black eyes, his smooth red lips over the white teeth…
“No one of consequence. This is a soiree at Madam Barney’s.’ She shuffled the picture of semi-naked nymphs past them and tucked it under another photo. ‘Here are some artists I knew. That is Sarcelle, his wife, some other people.’
‘You were wounded,’ said Cec. It was the first time he had spoken. ‘Is that why they gave you the medal?’
‘I suppose so. It was Madam Dumas’ son I was dragging out when the shell hit us. The it was nothing but blood and mud and noise – you know.’
They all nodded. They knew.
This is supposed to be one of the best novels in the entire Miss Fisher series. It is. I did enjoy it more than most I’ve read in the series.
We learn about a part of Phryne’s past, a time she spent in Paris at the end of WWI. Phryne had enlisted in the war against her father’s will, became an ambulance driver, and she gained the ‘honourable’ part of her name on the battlefield. In Paris at the end of the war, she again rebels to her father’s will and stays in Paris, where she lives with the bohemians.
WWI is pervasive in the case Phryne is investigating, involving her friends Bert and Cec. This case also brings back into her life her first lover, who she met in Paris, and this gives her an unusual sense of insecurity.
There’s lots of action and character building here. Hugh, as well as Phryne’s adopted daughters, get a good chunk of the action. Phryne’s story with Lin Chung also goes through a significant evolution. There is a lot, on different levels, in this story.
And still, I think it could have been even better. There were indeed a few weaknesses that, especially at the end, spoiled my enjoyment of the novel.
I had the impression that a lot of tension was built around Phryne’s insecurities and the thread about her former lover so to sustain the flashbacks in Paris, which didn’t have the strength to support themselves. These flashbacks were inserted in the plot quite forcefully. I never find any harmony in the way they existed inside the story. They were very long and frequent, and while at the beginning I found them interesting, after a while they started to repeat themselves so that in the end they became more annoying than enriching. The sensation became even stronger when the thread regarding Phryne’s lover in her present time basically ended up in nothing.
I was quite disappointed.
So, I suppose this was a good novel as it lasted, but could have ended more strongly.
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