Sunday, June 7, 2015

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
by Alan Bradley
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book four of the Flavia de Luce mysteries, set at Christmas 1950 when the heroine is still eleven years old, gives a quirky nod toward the Agatha Christie type of murder where all the suspects are conveniently gathered in the drawing room of some baronial pile in —shire, England. It brings the added twist that the suspects include the cast and crew of a film and half the village of Bishop's Lacey.

The film people have offered Flavia's father a desperately needed wad of cash to use Buckshaw as the set of their next picture. The village has turned out on a snowy Christmas Eve on the chance of seeing a pair of movie stars act out a scene from Romeo and Juliet, with the proceeds to help repair the roof of the parish church. So, naturally, when a celebrated screen actress is found strangled with a reel of film tied in a bow around her neck, Flavia will be in the thick of it.

While the police, as usual, do their best to solve the crime using routine police work, Flavia is up and down the stairwells and corridors of Buckshaw, in and out of the cupboard under the stairs, up onto and down off the roof, in and out of her chemistry lab with the unflagging energy of a child. She chats up people the police may never have thought to interrogate. She digs into secrets and angles no one else would have dreamt of exploring. She slips undetected through doors no one who didn't live in the house would have guessed were there, and lies or sneaks her way into places she has been warned to stay out of. She channels her frustration with a not very attentive father, a dead mother she doesn't remember and two sisters who make her miserable, into proving Father Christmas exists and, along the way, poking into everyone else's business. Meanwhile, she observes things no one else noticed, makes connections no one else made, and drives the local inspector to an excess of admiration and exasperation.

Most unusually, as Flavia's case rapidly unfolds, her suspicion falls almost immediately on those who actually done it. After that the mystery is why they done it and how she can be sure of it. As usual there is a point quite late in the mystery when she sets down in her casebook a list of possible suspects, their motives, and their pros and cons - but when her snooping finally, inevitably leads her to a life-or-death struggle among the blizzard-battered chimneys of Buckshaw, the chill you feel isn't surprise at the reveal-all so much as suspense and dread for Flavia's safety.

Though she is confronted by an improbable number of murder mysteries for a sleuth of her years, Flavia continues to develop as a wonderful character, and each of her adventures is a fun blend of dark comedy, poignant family drama, light satire and taut thriller, all wrapped in a quick-reading popular-fiction package and died with a dainty ribbon of literary quality. It's a gift to people who like a bit of Shakespeare, a bit of Christie and old movies. Next up in Flavia's adventures is Speaking from Among the Bones.

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