A Red Herring Without Mustard/Alan Bradley
Delacourt Press, 2011
What do a pair of fire dogs shaped like foxes, a strange Protestant Dissenter sect, the smell of fish, a gypsy fortune-teller and her half-gypsy granddaughter have in common? They are all plot elements in A Red Herring Without Mustard, the latest Flavia de Luce mystery by Alan Bradley.
The Flavia de Luce books are like a serving of lemon sorbet—tangy, slightly sweet and refreshing. The mysteries are good puzzles but they generally are not too dark or convoluted. The key ingredient to this series is Flavia herself.
Flavia is fascinated with chemistry, especially poisons. She is a perceptive and bright student of human nature. She is a fierce fighter. She is eleven years old.
Flavia is the youngest of the three de Luce daughters, growing up in the moldering ruin of
Bucklands Buckshaw, the ancestral mansion, in a small British village in the 1950s. She is a prepubescent Jane Marple, using her knowledge of the village connections (as well as chemistry) to solve murders—and also to periodically plot revenge on her older sisters, Daffy (Daphne) and Feely (Ophelia).
In Red Herring, Flavia gives a gypsy woman, complete with colorful wagon or caravan, and fortune-telling accoutrements, leave to stay at the Palings, a bit of land that is part of Buckl
andsshaw. The place is famous as the scene of scores of infant baptisms by a strange Dissenter sect called the Hobblers, and notorious more recently as a place where gypsies allegedly stole a baby. Later, prowling around the estate in the early morning, Flavia finds that the gypsy woman has been attacked. Soon a corpse, that of a local ne’er do well, is found hanging from a statue on the Buck landsshaw property. Flavia feels responsible for the attack on the gypsy woman, and sets out to solve both the attack and the murder.
Every British detective has a loyal and faithful sidekick and Flavia’s is her bicycle Gladys. She also gets help from Dogger, the family retainer, who was with her father during the war. Flavia begins to use her village connections and her fearless curiosity to find answers, even though she is hampered by the local police Inspector, who is torn between admiration and exasperation with her. One of Bradley’s strengths is his ability to show us the adult reactions to Flavia through her point of view.
Flavia is also shocked to discover how bad her family’s financial situation is. Cold-blooded and tough as nails when she is cogitating on the method of murder, Flavia is realistically child-like and vulnerable in other matters. Despite the delightful ongoing war between her and her sisters, she is often hurt by their comments (they say their dead mother didn’t want her and that she is a changeling) and she is devastated to find out that they are nearing poverty and may have to leave their home.
I just finished Green, by Jay Lake, a book nothing like Red Herring. It, too, has a first person narrator telling a tale of childhood. The tone is that of an adult looking back, but one difficulty with that book is the static nature of the narrator through the first ten years of her life. She sounds she same at five as she does at fifteen. Even looking back, the first-person narrator does not address the obvious developmental changes that would be part of Green’s make-up, no matter how strange her upbringing us. How interesting, then, to read about Flavia, who is compellingly plausible as a bright investigator who is still a child, making her way as best as she can through the strange world of grown-ups.
Bradley said in a back-of-the-book interview in the first mystery that he did not intend to age Flavia too much if he could help it. At eleven, he said, she was young enough to have license for behaviors that an older child could not get away with; there was also something he liked about this age and the way his character thinks. Flavia perches on the doorstep to adolescence, one foot still in childhood.
I found the second of these books slightly less satisfying. For some reason, A Red Herring Without Mustard recalled all the joy of the first book. I look forward to the next.