Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without Mustard
by Alan Bradley
Recommended Ages: 12+

The third Flavia de Luce mystery finds our heroine still eleven years old, still plagued by two older sisters, still fascinated with chemistry and especially poisons, still running a bit wild around the family estate of Buckshaw and the village of Bishop's Lacey, and still discovering corpses and solving mysteries at a rate that leaves the local detectives scratching their heads. To paraphrase a quotation Flavia finds in an old book, a week in her life without murder would be like a red herring without mustard.

In this installment, she tries to make amends for burning down a Gypsy woman's fortune-telling tent by inviting old Fenella to park her caravan in a secluded corner of the Buckshaw grounds. She thinks maybe this will also atone for her father kicking Fenella and her husband out years ago, leading to the husband's death on the road.

Later that night, while going to check on Fenella, Flavia catches Brookie Harewood, one of the skeezier local characters, fondling the firedogs in her family's drawing room and claiming he let himself into the house after seeing a ghost.

Then she finds the old woman unconscious in her caravan and bleeding from a head wound.

Her quick action saves the Gypsy woman. But when she returns to the scene of the assault the next morning she encounters Fenella's granddaughter Porcelain - who, if she can be trusted for even a moment, may prove to be something that has eluded Flavia all her life: a friend. Bad luck, then, that on their way to sneak back into Buckshaw they discover Brookie's corpse dangling from the trident of Poseidon on a derelict fountain, a piece of the De Luce family silver lodged in his brain.

Something about both these crimes stinks of rotting fish, which suggests to Flavia they may be connected - possibly by the remnants of a nonconformist sect called the Hobblers that practiced a strange form of Baptism in the river near where the Gypsy's caravan was parked. Or possibly it might have something to do with the disappearance two years ago of a local child. Plus, all these things may be connected to a criminal conspiracy to steal family heirlooms, make copies of them and return them before the owners miss them.

Flavia untangles these interwoven crimes with a combination of intelligence beyond her years and girlish innocence, the all-access pass that comes with belonging to an old (if down-on-its-fortunes) noble family, and the energetic activity of a child who is expert at evading what little parental supervision her widowed, philatelist father provides. As in the previous books The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, she finally finds herself in deadly danger, but only when the solution to all is in her grasp.

It's an irresistible mystery headlined by a delightful character who promises many fun outings in the future. The next book in the sequence is I Am Half-Sick of Shadows.

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