Many of the historical mystery novels that I read also serve as a window into another world and as an in-depth history class. Most of what I know of Ancient Rome has been culled from the Marcus Didius Falco novels by Lindsey Davis; I have learned so much about the world in the 1920s -- be it Great Britain, Palestine, North Africa -- from the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series penned by Laurie R. King; everything I know about China's Tang Dynasty I learned from Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee mystery novels. So I appreciate a well-crafted novel that interweaves history into a whodunit.
Unfortunately, that's not "Raisins and Almonds." It's not that author Kerry Greenwood can't effectively and smoothly splice history lessons into her Phryne Fisher novels: She's done so in the past, particularly in Death at Victoria Dock: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, which examined anarchism in 1920s Australia, and The Green Mill Murder: Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, which provides a glimpse into life in the untamed, breath-taking Snowy River country during the same time period. However, in "Raisins and Almonds," Greenwood is so taken with teaching us about the Kabbalah, medieval Jewish mysticism, kosher dietary laws, early Zionism and Jews in early 20th century Australia that the history lesson gets in the way of the story. Greenwood even provides a Yiddish glossary at the end of the novel, a two-page bibliography "[i]f anyone would like to duplicate my research" (uh, what's the likelihood of that???) and spends a painstaking two pages elucidating the difference between a schlemiel and a schlimazl, for heavens' sake! At times, the Jews emerge as stereotypes (e.g., Julia Abrahams, the mother of Phryne's newfound Jewish lover, as the archetypical suffocating Jewish mother and Rabbi Elijah as the unapproachable Kabbalah mystic). Greenwood's depiction of virgin Simon Abrahams as a fascinating lover is more part and parcel of Greenwood's adolescent fascination with early 20th century Australian Jewry. Seriously, how probable is it that the experienced and experimental Phryne Fisher is going to be impressed by a mama's boy who has never been with a woman? Greenwood is so determined to provide a glowing portrait of the resilient and adaptable Ashkenazi Jews of early 20th century Australia in "Raisins and Almonds" that, ironically, they emerge as two-dimensional characters.
For those interested in a more three-dimensional -- and better interwoven -- portrayal of Jews in history than you'll get in "Raisins and Almonds," please try Sharan Newman's Catherine LeVendeur series about Jews in 12th century Paris; Ariana Franklin's excellent Mistress of the Art of Death, which elucidates the lives of Jews in 12th century Sicily and England; King's and Dorothy and Sidney Rosen's Belle Appleman series, which is set in Depression Era Boston. As with the early Rabbi David Small novels of the late Harry Kemelman, Faye Kellerman's Rina Lazarus series, and King's Mary Russell novels, these provide an education about the Jewish way of life without swamping the mystery aspect of the novel.
Now, how does the mystery in "Raisins and Almonds" stack up? Even on that level, the novel, the ninth in the Phryne Fisher series, doesn't compare with any of Greenwood's previous novels. A yeshiva student who goes by the Anglicized name of Simon Michaels (actual name: Shimeon Ben Mikhael, an immigrant from Salonika) is poisoned while in a bookstore, and the proprietress gets the blame. A leader of the Jewish community (Simon Abrahams' father Benjamin) hires Phryne to catch the real murderer. As usual, Phryne enlists her faithful maid and companion, Dot Williams; her two "red ragger" pals, Cecil and Bert; and her adoptive daughters to help her discern who really killed Michaels. Usually, the result is a delightful and clever mystery; however, here Greenwood just seems to be going through the motions. You'll figure out how Michaels was poisoned long before Phryne or Detective Inspector John "Call me Jack, everyone does" Robinson do. The identity of the true murderer will, I admit, come as a surprise, and there's a suspenseful climax. Even so, without the unrelieved and clumsy history lessons, the pedestrian "Raisins and Almonds" might have risen to three stars, but no more. Raisins and Almonds is no Cocaine Blues (Phryne Fisher Mysteries (Paperback)), Flying Too High : a Phryne Fisher Mystery, The Green Mill Murder: A Phryne Fisher Mystery or Blood and Circuses (Phryne Fisher Mysteries (Paperback)). If you're looking to skip one, this is the one.