From Miss Fisher to Frankie Drake, Plucky Feminist Mysteries Are Having a Moment

TV Features Ms. Fisher's Modern Mysteries
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From <i>Miss Fisher</i> to <i>Frankie Drake</i>, Plucky Feminist Mysteries Are Having a Moment

“Every woman here is remarkable.”

So begins our introduction to the cabal of extraordinary women belonging to the Adventuresses’ Club of the Antipodes, Phryne Fisher’s social legacy and the new home-away-from-home for Peregrine Fisher—Phryne’s long-lost niece and heir to her role as Melbourne’s pluckiest amateur investigator—whose Swinging Sixties spin-off, Ms. Fisher’s Modern Mysteries, premieres on Acorn TV this week.

Plucky, given the patronizing dismissiveness with which it is so often employed, might seem too reductively gendered a word to describe women as formidable as Phryne and Peregrine Fisher (Essie Davis and Geraldine Hakewill, respectively). But while the equally accurate dauntless, intrepid, and bold might all be more gender-neutral, plucky is the most in keeping with the confidently feminine spirit of Phryne’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Peregrine’s Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries: Both are part of a recent boomlet of cozy, highly stylized, brassily feminine, woman-led procedurals.

Imported to the U.S. from points across the Commonwealth, Australia’s Miss and Ms. Fisher, Canada’s Frankie Drake Mysteries, and Britain’s Queens of Mystery all feature a clutch of women in the lead investigative roles, and use this perspective to tell stories that are as confident and progressive as they are breezy and entertaining. None of them mistake themselves for High Art, but High Art isn’t the point. The popcorn-perfect murder mystery extravaganzas that Phryne and Peregrine and all their plucky small-screen sisters belong to are fun. And in that fun, they are welcome oases of feminine capability and joy in a world that can always do with more of both.

Premiering in Australia in early 2012 and reaching the American market via Acorn TV and PBS the following year, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries was the leading edge of the wave. Set in Melbourne in the late 1920s and featuring Essie Davis as Miss Phryne Fisher, international woman of intrigue, adventure and investigative nerve, the series immediately proved how successful such a specifically feminine take on the private detective business could be. Ecstatically single, unapologetically independent, and devastatingly glamorous, Phryne, well into middle age, stormed onto the scene daring both 1920s Melbourne and modern audiences to just try and box her into even one stereotype. She lived alone, loved a lot, and, if it meant saving someone’s life or securing some kind of justice, launched herself at every danger that came her way. She built herself a family of bold, investigatively minded women—her assistant, Dot (Ashleigh Cummings), and her doctor friend, Mac (Tammy Macintosh), chief among them—and supportive, laid-back men. She courted a true romance with her police force counterpart, Detective Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), but only on the terms of equal standing and mutual respect. Though it’s her niece who’s ended up with the qualifier in her spin-off series’ title, Phryne was as modern a woman as the 1920s made them.

Canada’s Frankie Drake Mysteries, whose first season is currently available on PBS Passport and will also air on Ovation starting in June, is set in a similar period (1921) and features not one but two leading ladies, each as thoroughly modern as Phryne: Frankie Drake (Lauren Lee Smith), a motorcycle-riding redhead with a mysterious WWI past, and her partner, Trudy Clarke (Chantel Riley), a no-shit-taking Black woman taking care of business at a time when the idea of men paying even white women equal wages, let alone respect, was considered laughable. (Like, literally laughable: An episode in the first season sees Frankie demanding whether or not a factory owner pays his women as much as the men, and his response is a loudly aghast, hysteria-tinged “Of course not!”)

As with Phryne, Frankie and Trudy’s investigative team is rounded out with more women—medical examiner Flo (Sharron Matthews) and morality officer Mary (Rebecca Liddiard, playing her second early-era policewoman role after starring in the late, great Houdini & Doyle)—but unlike Phryne, they don’t bother bringing many men into the picture. Trudy has an inside man at City Hall (Romaine Waite), Frankie has occasional Season One flirtations with boxer Moses Page (Emmanuel Kabongo) and newspaperman Ernest Hemingway (Steve Lund), and Mary gets a new boss in the form of Dark Matter’s Anthony Lemke in Season Two. But for the most part, Frankie Drake Mysteries is full of women doing it for themselves.

If pluck is the watchword for the women at the heart of these series, modernity is key to understanding the trend as a whole. Despite the fact that most of the series that belong to this subgenre are period pieces, the mystery-solving women leading them are torchbearers of modern womanhood. In the ways they talk, dress, drink, shag and stride through the world, they demonstrate to anyone crossing their paths the benefits and promises of social progress and modern thought—modern thought that starts, always, with their confident, happy singledom. Often (scandalously), this singledom includes the frank use of birth control, period-specific vaginal stimulators, and guilt-free casual sex, but even more simply, it means that all of these women have the ability to travel when, where, and how they want (biplane, fast car, motorbike), with whom they want, for as long as they want, in times and in places where such things are far from given. Not for nothing does Ms. Fisher’s Modern Mysteries start with the news that Peregrine Fisher is inheriting her aunt’s estate because Phryne—who at the point that series starts, must be at least 70—has gone missing in a plane accident after haring off to Papua New Guinea to locate a tribal chief’s son. Peregrine, for her part, is free to move into Phryne’s house, drive Phryne’s sports car, and step into Phryne’s dangerous shoes as Melbourne’s chief amateur P.I. because of her own confident singledom. Sure, this singledom makes it easy for Peregrine to kindle her own when-will-they romance with handsome local detective James Steed (Joel Jackson, stepping charmingly into Nathan Page’s more serious shoes), but without it, her success as both private investigator and mystery series lead would be at risk.

It’s not just these lady detectives’ relationship status that marks the trend’s modernity, though. Because they are women investigating worlds run by mainly white, mainly heterosexual, mainly racist, xenophobic, piggish men, the cases that come their way are often those that intersect with the more marginalized sectors of whatever time period and place they belong to, and the almost didactically woke responses they have to them, while fitting the pluckiness of each of their characters, are thoroughly rooted in 21st-century thinking. This fact is not subtle. One episode of Frankie Drake sees Trudy quipping to Frankie, “What, an opinionated Black woman isn’t appreciated?” Meanwhile, Ms. Fisher’s sees two women making peace with one another with this exchange: “I’m sick of being overlooked because I’m a woman,” the first says. “Try being Chinese as well,” the second answers dryly. But subtlety, like High Art, isn’t the point. The point is intersectional compassion, delivered with a cricket bat and a determined, lipsticked smile.

Queens of Mystery, the only series belonging to this progressively feminine trendlet that is modern in setting as well as perspective, is a classic example of an exception that proves the rule. Featuring Julie Graham, Siobhan Redman and Sarah Woodward as crime novelists/mystery-solving busybodies Cat, Jane, and Beth Stone, its two-parter stories center around murders whose investigations are being led officially by Detective Sergeant Matilda Stone (Olivia Vinall), the niece they raised after her mother mysteriously disappeared, who has recently moved back to work in her hometown precinct.

While set in the present day, Juliet Stevenson’s arch narration, matched with the idiosyncratic, almost comic, costume and set design, the Pushing Daisies-like breaks from reality, and the highly stylized pop-up book title sequence, makes for a vibe that is as tonally singular as Miss Fisher and Frankie Drake’s 1920s and Ms. Fisher’s 1960s. Add to this the fact that it’s four (mostly older) women leading the investigative charge, the few men in their lives left to be supporting players, and Queens of Mystery is an obvious fit for the trend Phryne began. In fact, with Matilda in the lead as the professional detective the Stone sisters’ amateur sleuthing simultaneously aids and annoys, Queens of Mystery drives the progressive spirit propelling the other three series home. Where Phryne, Frankie, Trudy and Peregrine belonged to worlds where they had to elbow their way into a detective career they were both suited for and discouraged from pursuing, Matilda can just… be one. No wonder Queens of Mystery seems to have traded its predecessors’ heavy-handed “sucks being a woman” threads for more oddball whimsy. Phryne, Frankie, Trudy and Peregrine stride in their times so that the Stone sisters can turn cartwheels in ours.

The biggest shame (though not much of a surprise) about this trend is that American television, bursting as it is with every other possible type of female-forward show, doesn’t have a single plucky lady-led investigative team to call its own. We’ve got procedurals co-starring fierce professional women in law enforcement—Bosch’s Grace Billets, Elementary’s Joan Watson, all the hyper-competent women who have scaled the television law enforcement ranks only to be saddled with the “consultant” services of a Richard Castle or a Shawn Spencer—and we’ve got detective-adjacent plucky lady ensembles on genre shows like Wynonna Earp, Supergirl, and Charmed. On the comedy front, we even have the fiercely funny ladies of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But it’s been ages since we’ve had anything like a Phryne, or a Frankie, or a Peregrine (RIP, Sweet/Vicious), nevermind anyone like the Stone sisters.

Happily, with the re-launch of Veronica Mars on Hulu in July and a Nancy Drew pilot coming to The CW sometime next year, the lady-led private detective trend might finally start to swing back our way. The noir world of Veronica Mars isn’t necessarily pluck-friendly, and who knows what a Riverdale-adjacent Nancy Drew will end up looking like, but maybe that’s alright—it makes a kind of exhausting kind of sense for American pluck to be a bit scrappy and dark, and more than a bit young. The important thing is getting these fun, independent, remarkable ladies elbowing their way through tough investigations on as many screens as possible. We’ll be here, ready for them.

Queens of Mystery, Ms. Fisher’s Modern Mysteries, and Seasons One and Two of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries are now streaming on Acorn TV. (Seasons One through Three of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries are also available on Netflix.) Season One of Frankie Drake Mysteries is available on PBS Passport, and premieres Saturday, June 15 at 9 p.m. on Ovation.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.