Monday, March 28, 2011

Monday Review: A RED HERRING WITHOUT MUSTARD by Alan Bradley

Alan Bradley is such a wonderful writer - yeah, I'm gushing again. I really and truly do wonder how a man of a 'certain' age can write such terrific stories all from the point of view of an 11 year old girl. My initial inclination is this: 11 year old girls are not that much different from 11 year old boys and so I'm assuming Bradley pulls on his own memories of running about the countryside of his youth causing havoc. I'm smiling while I'm writing this, but hey, it might be the case.
This is the third book in the Flavia de Luce series begun with the multi-award winning THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE. The stories are set in the 1950's English countryside and feature the eccentric youngest sister of a trio of girls, daughters of an indifferent, lonely, taciturn widower whose passion is collecting stamps. They all live in a ramshackle, rundown estate called Buckshaw, the house a mere shadow of better times.

Flavia's two older sisters nicknamed Daffy and Feely, are horrors - well, as described by Flavia anyway - definitely two wicked sisters from out of a fairy tale. Most especially cruel is their annoying habit of making Flavia feel as if their dead mother Harriet (who died in a mountain climbing accident when Flavia was a baby) didn't care much for Flavia and that Flavia is adopted.

For Flavia, a brilliant but lonely child, these reminders that she never got to know her mother or form memories of her are a constant sadness. But she plots her revenge against her sisters in her own special place in the house: the 3rd floor laboratory full of potions and poisons and chemical paraphernalia, conveniently left behind by a dead relative. Flavia is a natural-born scientist and her gleeful love of chemical formulas and experimentation is fun to read about, especially when she's plotting against her sisters and brewing poisons.

Stepping through the door into my laboratory was like gaining sanctuary in a quiet church: The rows of bottled chemicals were my stained glass windows, the chemical bench my altar. Chemistry has more gods than Mount Olympus, and here in my solitude I could pray in peace to the greatest of them: Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (who, when he found a young assistant in a linen draper's shop surreptitiously reading a chemistry text which she kept hidden under the counter, promptly dumped his fiancee and married the girl); William Perkin (who had found way of making purple dye for the robes of emperors without using the spit of mollusks); and Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who probably discovered oxygen, and - more thrilling even that that - hydrogen cyanide, my personal pick as the last word in poisons.

Flavia's only friend appears to be her bicycle, Gladys, and as Flavia scampers about the countryside in and out of trouble, solving mysteries and digging for answers to quirky problems that seem to fall in her lap, Gladys come in handy for quick escapes or for following up a culprit.

Glady's tires hummed happily as we shot past St. Tancred's and into the high street. She was enjoying the day as much as I was.

Ahead on my left, a few doors from the Thirteen Drakes, was Reggie Pettibone's antiques shop. I was making a mental note to pay it a visit later when the door flew open and a spectacled boy came hurtling out into the street.

It was Colin Prout.

I swerved to avoid hitting him, and Gladys went into a long shuddering slide.

"Colin!" I shouted as I came to a stop. I had very nearly taken a bad tumble.

But Colin had already crossed the high street and vanished into Bolt Alley, a narrow, reeking passage that led to a lane behind the shops.

Needless to say, I followed, offering up fresh praise for the invention of the Sturmey-Archer three-speed shifter.

The current book begins with Flavia having her fortune told at a country fete by an old Gypsy named Fenella. When through a series of clumsy actions, Flavia burns the Gypsy's tent down, the story is off with a bang.

After that, all Flavia can do is allow the Gypsy to camp her horse and wagon on her family's land even if long ago her father had sent this Gypsy's family packing. On their way to the campsite, they are accosted by Mrs. Bell outside her hovel of a home. She accuses the Gypsy of having stolen her baby years ago. But with some clever dissembling, Flavia and Fenella manage to get away from the agitated woman.

Later that night, Flavia out on one of her nocturnal skirmishes, finds Fenella halfway beaten to death inside her wagon. Heroically, she leaps on the sleepy horse's back and gallops into town for help, saving the Gypsy's life. Flavia is nothing if not a courageous kid.

When Fenella's granddaughter, Porcelain Lee, shows up at the hospital, Flavia hides her at Buckshaw. (No one ever comes into her part of the house.) Porcelain is penniless and has no where to go. Obviously she can't stay in the wagon which is a crime scene. Though Flavia doesn't entirely trust Porcelain, she's happy enough to have someone to talk to about the crime. Flavia NEVER reveals much about her adventures to her family - she operates on a 'need to know' basis only.

When Flavia finds Brookie Harewood, local nasty n'er do well, lurking inside one of Buckshaw's main rooms in the middle of the night, holding an antique fireplace iron, she is naturally suspicious. But does she summon help from her father? No. Once Brookie leaves, Flavia decides to solve this mystery on her own as usual. By astute observation and Flavia-like reasoning she figures out that Brookie is involved with some ugly folks in town, and that possibly they are all members of an old-time religion now mostly gone extinct. The Hobblers, as they're called, were given to arcane baptism practices. They also seem to be dealing in fake antiques - possibly copying authentic pieces and replacing them with fakes.

Just a short while later, Flavia and Porcelain discover Brookie's dead body hanging off the Poseidon statue in the dried out, neglected Buckshaw fountain. By now, Flavia is not unused to dead bodies, but this one causes even her to turn a hair or two.

Enter Inspector Hewitt who has met Flavia before and is well aware of her precocious nature and her penchant for trouble. Once more Hewitt tries, unsuccessfully, to keep Flavia out of the investigation chagrined when the young girl stumbles over clues his more experienced men have overlooked.

In this book, we are made aware of the heretofore unknown hidden fountain water-works built beneath Buckshaw (by their original owner, a distant relation of Flavia's family) complete with dungeon like atmosphere and clanking metal doors and wheels and all sorts of damp and dark apparatus. Very atmospheric.

Near the end we find ourselves along with Flavia down in these dungeon-depths wishing she'd be a little more cautious, hoping against hope she'd tamp down her zest for solitary adventure.

But, as usual, Flavia escapes harm and solves the mystery. With a great deal of mental and physical dexterity, she puts two and two together and comes up with the right answer, managing for a moment, to impress even her distant father. Though she seems well aware that it's only a momentary respite and that her sisters will soon be up to old tricks soon as the adults' backs are all turned.

Invisibility was nothing new to me. It was an art I had been forced to learn from the day I took my first step.

Visible and invisible: the trick of being present and absent at the same time.

Another impressive entry in this series by a writer whose inventive mind knows no bounds and whose writing talent keeps shining brightly. I do, most heartily, recommend that you make the acquaintance of Flavia de Luce. Sooner, rather than later.


  1. I am just skimming this post because I don´t need ANY encouragement to read this book. I was so impressed by the first one, and it is enough to know that he lives up to my huge expectations ;D

  2. Dorte: My favorite is still the second book, THE WEED THAT STRINGS THE HANGMAN'S BAG, but I loved this one as well. It has a 'creepy' quotient that the previous two books only skim. This is a great series, no doubt.

  3. I really must get started on this series! Sounds like this one lived up to your high expectations.

  4. Oh, absolutely, Lisa. This is a series not to be missed. Flavia and her bike, Gladys, are inspired creations. Though Flavia is, essentially, a very lonely kid and you feel for her, she deals with her life in the best way she can using intelligence and imagination.


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