Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard

After reading the first two Flavia de Luce adventures in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and The Weed that Strings the Hangman's bag, I was thrilled when I noticed the third instalment, A Red Herring Without Mustard on the new releases shelf. This book is a splendid romp through 1950s England led by the world’s smartest and most incorrigible preteen. Flavia de Luce remains irresistibly appealing and continues to charm us.

In the third installment of this bestselling, award-winning, sister-poisoning, bicycle-riding, murder-investigating, and utterly captivating series, Flavia de Luce must draw upon Gypsy lore and her encyclopaedic knowledge of poisons to prevent a grave miscarriage of justice.

“You frighten me,” the old Gypsy woman says. “Never have I seen my crystal ball so filled with darkness.” So begins eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce’s third adventure through the charming but deceptively dark byways of the village of Bishop’s Lacey. The fortune teller also claims to see a woman who is lost and needs help to get home—and Flavia knows it must be her mother Harriet, who died when Flavia was less than a year old. The Gypsy’s vision opens up old wounds for our precocious yet haunted heroine, and sets her mind racing in search of what it could mean.

When Flavia later goes to visit the Gypsy at her encampment, she certainly doesn’t expect to find the poor old woman lying near death in her caravan, bludgeoned in the wee hours. Was it an act of retribution by those who thought that the woman had abducted a local child years before? Certainly Flavia understands the bliss of settling scores; revenge is a delightful pastime when one has two odious older sisters. But how can she prove this crime is connected to the missing baby? Did it have something to do with the weird sect who met at the river to practice their secret rites?

While still pondering the possibilities, Flavia stumbles upon a corpse—that of a notorious layabout and bully she had only recently caught prowling about Buckshaw. The body hangs from a statue of Poseidon in Flavia’s very own backyard, and our unflappable sleuth knows it’s up to her to figure out the significance. Pedalling her faithful bicycle, Gladys, across the countryside in search of clues to both crimes, Flavia uncovers secrets both long-buried and freshly stowed—the dodgy dealings of a local ironworks, the truth behind the Hobblers’ secret meetings, her own ancestor’s ambitious plans—all the while exhausting the patience of Inspector Hewitt. But it’s not long before the evidence starts falling into place, and Flavia must take drastic action to prevent another violent attack.

But who better to sum up the plot than Flavia herself? “It was all so confoundedly complicated: the attack upon Fenella, the gruesome death of Brookie Harewood, the sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance of Porcelain, Harriet’s firedogs turning up in not one but three locations, the strange antique shop of the abominable Pettibones, Miss Mountjoy and the Hobblers, Vanetta Harewood’s long-lost portrait of Harriet, and underneath it all, like the rumble of a stuck organ pipe, the constant drone of Father’s looming bankruptcy.

Barrelling along on her bicycle through the leafy, sun-dappled lanes near her home in the English countryside, Flavia de Luce rides out of the pages of Alan Bradley’s new mystery and straight into our hearts. She’s got all the attributes that you’d expect to find in a middle-aged amateur sleuth: a solid network of connected villagers who pass on trivial bits of information that turn out to be important, an insatiable curiosity, a determination to see wrongs put right and an unwillingness to stay out of things that are really none of her business. Except she’s 11. And in this remarkably self-possessed girl, Alan Bradley has created one of the most endearing protagonists the traditional mystery genre, typified by the works of Agatha Christie, has seen in a very long time.

As satisfying as the mystery is, the multiple award-winning Bradley offers more. At this point in his series, he allows Flavia to reveal her insecurities and frailties so readers who found her insufferably precocious in the first book, with her vast knowledge of chemistry and just about everything else, may warm to her in this one. Despite the hard-shell appearance of her disdain for her sisters, she is deeply hurt by their cruel taunts, and as she grieves the aching, unbearable loss of her mother, Harriet, who died when Flavia was a baby, she exposes the depth of a wound that will never heal. There is almost an allegorical, fairy-tale quality to her life – the mean older sisters, the father trying to raise three demanding, idiosyncratic daughters on his own. The only thing missing is the wicked stepmother.

The book is beautifully written, with fully fleshed characters, even the minor ones such as odd-job man Dogger and Mrs. Mullet, who rules in the kitchen. The descriptions are vivid and lyrical: “Now, almost two weeks into the harvest, most of the countryside had traded its intense summer green for a paler, grayish shade, as if Mother Nature had nodded off a little, and let the colours leak away.”

The title turns out to be a sly play on words. We know the importance of the red herring in a mystery story as a literary device to distract the reader from what’s important or to point her in a different direction. But it can also mean an extremely strong-smelling fish, and the heavy odour of fish in this story is a real clue, not a red herring.

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