I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Alan Bradley scores again with I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, the latest Flavia de Luce mystery. Eleven-year-old Flavia is the youngest de Luce daughter, a chemist and de facto detective, solving mysteries in her moldering ancestral mansion, Buckshaw. In Shadows, Flavia unravels a story of secret identities, secrets and jealousies, and plans a trap for Father Christmas.

This, the fourth adventure for our child sleuth, is the clearest homage to Agatha Christie, even in terms of the title, which echoes The Mirror Crack’d, a Jane Marple mystery. Both books are set in the 1950s. Both books take their names from Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shallot, both books deal with production companies filming a movie, and both play off the idea of the quiet village overrun by exotic movie folks.

Bradley ups the ante by turning his story into a true “country house” murder, as a snowstorm followed by a blizzard traps half the population of Bishop’s Lacey at Buckshaw, where they’ve come to see a performance given to fund-raise for the church roof.

The book is a quick read and an engaging mystery, and, as always, Flavia’s voice, that of a brilliant observer who solves mysteries, conducts experiments, and is still only an eleven-year-old, is a delight. In this book, some relationships deepen, and we learn more about her father’s man Dogger. The relationship between Flavia and Dogger is poignant. We also learn more about Dogger’s past. Aunt Felicity also comes under a little more scrutiny and we make some intriguing discoveries about the de Luce family – discoveries that make us realize that Flavia is not some astounding wonder, but a true de Luce, acting in a fine family tradition.

Somehow, Flavia’s naïve but scientific plan to coat the roof near the chimney with a powerful adhesive, thus capturing Father Christmas and providing hard evidence of his existence, is the sweetest and most charming aspect of this mystery. Bradley has captured this perfect balance of intelligence and childishness that makes Flavia wonderful. She isn’t a tiny adult, or an annoying sit-com child, written as snarky and worldly. She is a brilliant little girl who figures things out, sometimes figures them out wrong, gets herself in trouble and can still be reduced to sobs by the mean things her two older sisters say to her.

Bradley sprinkles a few more clues about the mystery of Flavia’s mother’s disappearance throughout the book as well. Harriet is probably dead, killed in an avalanche in Tibet, but she haunts the house through her personal objects, which Flavia’s father guards as zealously as if they were sacred artifacts. And there are too many unanswered questions…

I thoroughly enjoy this series, but I am worried. Bradley himself has said that he needs to keep Flavia young – talking about the “threshold” of childhood and the idea that her innocence cannot last very far into young adulthood, but how many murders can a peaceful British village truly have in a year? Still, with I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, he carried me along, and I’ll continue to go wherever he leads.

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