Bookbyte: A Red Herring Without Mustard

Red HerringFlavia de Luce is one of the most witty and memorable characters in fiction today. She hit the scene in 2009 in her debut novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Alan Bradley manages to make believable an eleven-year-old chemistry genius with passion for poison and a vocabulary beyond her years. A lesser author would make her precocious and cartoonish, but brought alive by Bradley’s words, Flavia looks out at you from the the pages, a real girl with wide eyes filled with curiosity.

Her latest adventure, A Red Herring Without Mustard, takes place in the same summer as both Pie and the impeccable follow-up mystery, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. That’s a lot of murder in one season in the fictional 1950s English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia runs the risk of becoming a pre-teen Jessica Fletcher if the bodies keep dropping at this rate.

Flavia ends up with two mysteries in her path this time: a gypsy woman traveling through town for a carnival is bludgeoned in her own caravan and a local remittance man (the black sheep of an upper class family whom is paid to stay away) is skewered and hung from a statue on Buckshaw grounds, Flavia’s family estate.

The intertwining mysteries are compelling, filled with twists, turns, and–yes–red herrings. Although solving these crimes is Flavia’s focus, Bradley’s lens centers in on other aspects in the young sleuth’s life. The de Luce’s are in shambles, and Flavia’s father is forced to sell family heirlooms just to pay the bills. Flavia, being eleven, doesn’t realize this is what is happening most of the time. They keep her in the dark. But Bradley expertly weaves it in between the lines of his first-person narrative.

The gypsy’s granddaughter, Porcelain, is wild, alternately wanting to strangle Flavia and to help her figure out who was behind her grandmother’s attack. In her, Flavia starts forming the bonds of friendship for the first time. Flavia is believably intelligent because she spends all her time alone, in her great uncle Tarquin de Luce’s chemistry lab. Her mother, Harriet, died in a mountaineering accident when Flavia was two. Her sisters, Feely and Daffy, hate her, often pulling truly despicable pranks on her. Her father is in another world. Mrs. Mullet, the housekeeper, is a jabberjawing gossip. And Dogger, the family’s jack-of-all-trades, is an ex-P.O.W. prone to horrific flashbacks that render him incapable of functioning. In Porcelain, Flavia finds her first true confidant, and their short-lived relationship is a joy to watch.

Bradley also subtly shows Flavia’s desire for a mother figure in her life. She briefly fantasizes about Inspector Hewitt’s wife, Antigone, inviting her over for tea, praising her for her intelligent deductions, etc. etc. It’s tender and touching.

Bradley has an impeccable ability to personify anything. A root dangling from the ceiling in a dank basement does just slap Flavia in the face, it “carress[es her] face, as if it were dying for want of human company.” Buckshaw manor doesn’t just creak after a brutal rainstorm, it “come[s] alive ina way that it never did in dry weather–a deep wet breathing in and out–as if, after a mad dash down the centuries, the tired old place had just thrown itself across the finish line.”

In the richly layered Flavia de Luce mysteries, everything, even inanimate objects, come vividly alive. A Red Herring Without Mustard is no exception.

Become a member of the Flavia de Luce fan club, download a Flavia-themed card game, and more at her website:

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