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Friday, April 1, 2011

What I'm Reading: A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without Mustard: A Flavia de Luce Novel
I am a huge fan of the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley, so it is no surprise that I read the third, and brand new installment, A Red Herring Without Mustard right after it came out.

Briefly here are some excerpts about Flavia and her family from the first time I read a Flavia book here:
If you are looking for a unique and original cozy mystery, I have a suggestion for you. It is 1950 in rural England and Flavia de Luce is an 11 year-old aspiring chemist with an interest in poisons. She lives in a crumbling, country mansion, with her father and two older sisters.
What is most endearing and entertaining about this novel is Flavia's voice. Bradley, was 11 himself in 1950 (so yes, he is a first time novelist in his 70s), and he understands the time period. For example, Flavia cannot just hop on the Internet to look things up; instead, she spends a lot of time in the musty stacks at her local public library. The book obviously won my heart right there.

Flavia is just old enough to look out for herself but her adventurous spirit has not yet been squashed by adulthood. She is still naive enough and her 1950s rural England world is still safe and small enough, that she takes the risks that keep the plot interesting. It would be hard to believe that an 11 year-old today could just slip away for the entire day, ride her bike all around the county, and have no one asking after her. But in the setting Bradley chose, it all seems fine.
This time, Flavia is the veteran of 2 murder mysteries and the police are less willing to indulge her. The story begins with someone who is out to kill a visiting gypsy and moves into an actual murder that is indirectly tied to the gypsy.  Flavia discovers the two victims, one still alive and one very dead.  As a result, the police have their eye on her and explicitly tell her father to keep her at home.  Flavia of course can sneak out no problem.  In fact, her various manners of sneaking out are a huge foreshadowing of things to come.

But the murder investigation is not the chief appeal here.  Like the other two novels in the series, the sense of place is huge. This is small town, rural England, where everyone knows everything about everyone else's business. Flavia is able to move in and out slightly unnoticed because of her age.  People are willing to open up to her, and her excellent hearing and chemical knowledge serve her well.

The characters are also the key to the appeal.  Meeting all of these quirky people and seeing how they are interconnected keeps you reading.  I especially like the family's cook and Dodger, the family's jack-of-all trades, who may be suffering from PTSD from the war, but is the wisest member of the household.

What I most enjoyed about this installment is that we are getting more details about the family's situation.  Flavia's mom died in an accident when Flavia was a baby and all of the family's money was hers.  Due to England's probate laws, since Harriet (the mom) died without a will, the family is now without funds, yet they still live in the large, literally falling apart manor home.  This book gives more details about Harriet and the family situation:  Dodger is packing the family silver to be sold at auction, Flavia's room leaks when it rains, there is an entire underground irrigation system that no one knows about.  You can feel this plot line building toward a more prominent role in future installments.  Much of that is because Flavia is growing up enough to care about what is going on outside her day-to-day existence.  This book introduces a Flavia who is leaving childhood and entering adolescence; a Flavia who wants to understand her family and their problems.

There are too many crazy and quirky characters to recount here.  Bishop's Lacey is one weird town.  But if you are okay with a convoluted mystery and love interesting characters, this is the book for you.  If you are a hard core mystery fan, I would try something more along the lines of P.D. James.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  captivating, quirky, original

Readalikes:  When I reviewed the first 2 books in this series here and here, I suggested the following books:

These series are set all over the map in terms of time and place, but they all share a few key elements with Bradley's series, they are fairly cozy, with serious undertones, they feature extremely quirky and interesting investigators, and they are all very original.

A few new suggestion that I want to offer which also fit this same mold are as follows:
In the past I have also suggested how Flavia is reminiscent of Harriet the Spy. And for those who liked this book but want a little more sarcasm (this book has none), I would suggest Confessions of a Teen Sleuth by Chelsea Cain, which is the fictional biography of Nancy Drew.

Another standalone title that would work for those who enjoyed the precocious narrator is The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen.

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