Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

Whenever I'm with other people, part of me shrinks a little.  Only when I am alone can I fully enjoy my own Company--Flavia de Luce
Oh Flavia, we would get along perfectly.  I'm pleased to report that author Alan Bradley has released the third installment in his quirky and macabre Flavia de Luce series.  These mysteries are keeping their momentum and Bradley is making the wise decision to age Flavia slowly.  In fact, A Red Herring Without Mustard is set about two months after the series' debut, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  
Although engaging, it is getting rather hard to believe that all these people are being murdered in the sleepy village of Bishop's Lacey in 1950 England.  It reminds me of how Miss Marple was practically tripping over bodies in St. Mary Mead, but I suppose if it's good enough for Agatha Christie then Bradley should continue as he pleases.  
Now where was I?  Oh that's right, I'm supposed to be doing a book review.
"Mustard" opens at the annual church fair where precocious Flavia is having her fortune told by an ancient gypsy who begins to have visions of the Flavia’s dead mother, Harriet.  In a panic, Flavia flees the gypsy's tent, knocks over a candle, and burns the entire place to the ground in typical "trouble always finds Flavia" form.  She subsequently offers to let the gypsy camp out at the Palings, a distant offshoot of the de Luce property where Harriet allowed the gypsies to camp during her life.  When Flavia finds the gypsy woman half dead in her caravan later that evening, she realizes that the woman’s return to Bishop's Lacey is an unwelcome one.
A humorous, jarring, and sufficiently complex plot unfolds as Flavia attempts to uncover the secrets of the Palings and the murder of a young boy attributed to the gypsy.  The usual cast of characters returns in this third installment including Flavia’s sisters and father who still ignore her with fervor and the Buckshaw Manor staff of Mrs. Mullet and Dogger.  New characters are also introduced, including Porcelain, the gypsy’s granddaughter, who becomes the closest thing Flavia has ever had to a friend.
One area where this particular book excels is its character development.  We find a more reflective and mature Flavia than before and new complexities in the relationship between her and Colonel de Luce.  We also learn of the family’s financial strain and the decades of neglect Buckshaw has faced as a result.  Buckshaw itself becomes a character in “Mustard” like the houses in Sunset Boulevard and Wuthering Heights.
As a whole, “Mustard” proves to be a much more thoughtful read than its predecessors in the series and I am grateful that a fourth Flavia de Luce mystery is well on its way to being published.