Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is a rarity in today’s superlative-dominated TV landscape, neither prestige fare nor a guilty pleasure. The synopsis for the series, much like its twee title, is deceptively frothy: Miss Phryne (pronounced FRY-nee) Fisher is an heiress-turned-amateur detective who—armed with a tiny gold gun and a bob to rival Louise Brooks—solves murder mysteries in 1920s Australia, as she does in the novels by Kerry Greenwood. But despite that quaint description, the show itself feels modern, with compelling mysteries, clever solutions, and a heroine as emotionally complex as she is intellectually competent.
The result is a pleasurable murder-mystery series that is neither a binge watch nor a slow burn but satisfyingly somewhere in the middle. With the new movie Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears now available to stream, there’s no better time to start watching, and no better episode to start than “Murder on the Ballarat Train,” the second episode of the first season in the series. Like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, “Murder on the Ballarat Train” is a whodunnit set on a train, but as the episode progresses, it becomes clear that Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) is no gender-flipped Hercule Poirot as she bucks any number of fictional detective stereotypes. Despite her independence, she plays well with others, unlike know-it-all Sherlock Holmes or hard-boiled Philip Marlowe. And she’s neither a perpetual innocent like Nancy Drew nor a retiree like Jessica Fletcher or Miss Marple.*
“Murder on the Ballarat Train” begins with Miss Fisher purchasing two first-class tickets to Ballarat, an excursion that is supposed to be about “having fun,” as she tells Dot (Ashleigh Cummings), who looks nervous at the prospect. Dot is Miss Fisher’s maid, a devout Catholic whose domesticity, diffidence, and beige-toned cardigans offer a foil to Miss Fisher’s bejeweled and feathered flapperdom. But the show never trips itself up with caricatures, even if the ideological differences between the characters are fair game for jokes. For example, Miss Fisher’s drivers and general helpers, Bert and Cec, are proud “red raggers” (communists). Bert thinks Miss Fisher is a “toff,” but despite their ideological misgivings, the pair accepts her gift of a new car and the implicit offer of employment, to which they eventually resign themselves.
Wealthy Miss Fisher enjoys her material comforts and flaunts social norms with her sexually liberated spinsterhood, appearing in no fewer than eight outfits in “Murder on the Ballarat Train,” so Downton Abbey fans who miss the show’s lavish costuming should be sated. And, as almost every Miss Fisher mystery comes with its own tryst, her flavor of the episode is a med student named Lindsay (Dale March). When Miss Fisher first spots him at the train station, she approves of what she sees, telling Dot that “the scenery has vastly improved.” But the liaison that follows, like the others in the series, is a woman acting on her desire, not a portent of a troubled psyche nor an instrument in Miss Fisher’s investigative toolkit.
Miss Fisher is charming without being cynical, using her social maneuvering to aid her in her investigations, and unlike solitary antiheroes, she has a healthy sense of team spirit. She has ample opportunity to demonstrate those skills and more when her “fun” excursion quickly escalates into a murder mystery. She is inquisitive and observant, as evidenced by how she decides to investigate the mysterious noise she hears from her train compartment. When she sees a young woman, Eunice Henderson, lying unconscious in her compartment, she quickly identifies the cause of unconsciousness (chloroform). And above all, she is tenacious. When she discovers that Eunice’s mother is missing, Miss Fisher dismisses the warnings of Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) that a nearby water tower is too high for her to climb and investigate. “Don’t fret, Hugh, I’ve scaled Mount Kilimanjaro,” she tells him, although she adds, when one of the ladder’s rungs gives out, “at least to the first hiker’s hut.”
When they discover Eunice Henderson’s mother dead and hanging from the top of the ladder, turning the mystery into a murder mystery, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) is called to the scene. He attempts to restore order by sending Miss Fisher back to her compartment, but Miss Fisher wins him over—at least for the moment—by sharing her observations: “Most of the bruising’s around the neck. But not a lot of jewelry, you’ll note.” The impressed constable makes notes in his notebook, while Inspector Robinson attempts to rebuff Miss Fisher with a polite “We’ll take that into consideration,” a dynamic that continues throughout the series, often to comic effect.
Miss Fisher convinces Miss Henderson to hire her as a private detective so she can investigate, whisking Miss Henderson and a young stowaway named Jane (Ruby Rees), who have become suspects in the case, to her Italianate townhouse in Melbourne. Though Miss Fisher uses her charisma to her advantage, her manipulations are never mean-spirited. When an accusatory Inspector Robinson pays her a visit to confront her for sheltering the suspects, she politely offers him tea and an interview with Jane, defending her actions by saying that she couldn’t leave Jane to the notoriously negligent care of the state. This is a theme that runs throughout the entire series: When Miss Fisher bends the law, it’s often out of empathy, and she doesn’t hold the inspector’s title against him, even when he remains wary of her. Rather, Miss Fisher goes out of her way to help him, sharing tips and insights.
One of the most thrilling moments of “Murder on the Ballarat Train” involves the buttoned-up inspector beginning to warm up to Miss Fisher at the end of the episode. After a series of interrogations, revelations, and a tense standoff at gunpoint, the two detectives debrief in Miss Fisher’s sitting room, both looking extremely well-dressed, with Miss Fisher in a chartreuse silk top and a black satin shawl with gold floral embroidery and the inspector in his three-piece suit. When she asks whether she can offer him a drink, Robinson pretends to check the time and feigns a moment of consideration before smiling for a millisecond and saying “Perhaps, just the one.” There is no cliffhanger (as promised, this show is satisfying without any need to binge), but their budding relationship is just one of the reasons to keep watching—along with plenty of murder mysteries, sex, and train rides to come.
Correction, March 23, 2020: This post originally misidentified the character Jessica Fletcher as Angela Fletcher.