Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard

I have mixed feelings about books in a series. When I was a kid, I loved them: Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, and, later, Emily of New Moon – I read an reread those books because I loved getting to know the characters over the arc of their life and experiencing their different ages and phases as I grew up. For similar reasons, I loved Harry Potter. Mystery series, though, can be something quite different. Either you have a number of different cases written entirely independently of one another, so it doesn't matter what order you read them in because there's no over-arching character development, or you have ones that string you along – a detective haunted by a killer who got away, his or her paranoi growing with each book as glimpses of the bad guy come and go. For me, the former usually becomes unrewarding and I typically end up resenting the latter. What's a reader to do? Well, for now anyway, read Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce books – the third of which is A Red Herring Without Mustard – which combine just enough of the two basic kinds of mystery series with a dash of the series I loved as a kid.

A Red Herring Without Mustard opens with a scene at the church fair. Eleven-year-old Flavia is having her palm read by a Gypsy fortune teller when the woman gives her a fortune that sounds very much like the story of how Flavia's mother Harriet died. In shock, Flavia stumbles out, knocking over a candle and sending the entire tent up in flames. Naturally, Flavia feels awful; she invites the Gypsy, to camp on part of the Buckshaw grounds know as the Palings, in the bend of the river. Harriet, it seems, once invited them to stay there as well, because the Gypsy woman is familiar with the area and, when the red-headed and rough Mrs. Bull yells at them on the way by, accusing the Gypsy of stealing her baby, it's clear she's been that way before. But Flavia doesn't have much time to ask her questions, because the older woman is sick and needs to be left in peace. In the middle of the night, though, Flavia wakes up and can't get back to sleep, so she decides to go and check on the Gypsy – she finds her bludgeoned nearly to death inside her caravan.

Flavia has inserted herself into a couple of police investigations by now, and when Inspector Hewitt arrives, he is very clear that she is not allowed to poke around or disturb evidence or get in the way. Of course, Flavia is furious, but I always like Bradley's little reminders that, as smart as she is, she's still a child, and certainly the police see her that way. Of course, Flavia ignores the police directives and when she returns to the caravan later she finds, to her great surprise, someone tries to killer her. It's a misunderstanding, of course, and the would-be assassin turns out to be the Gypsy's granddaughter Porcelain, who has come from London to check on her gran. She was intending to stay in the caravan, but Flavia invites her to stay at Buckshaw (although it is, of course, a secret). On their way back to the house, Flavia gives Porcelain a bit of a tour and when they reach the sculpture park they're both very surprised to find a corpse hanging of Poseidon's trident.

The mystery that follows involves the tragedy of the Bulls' missing child, local history (including the formation of a strange and hush-hush religious sect), an increasingly fishy smell, and a great deal about life at Buckshaw and de Luce family lore. The de Luce focus is, to be honest, my favourite thing about Bradley's books. Certainly the mysteries drive the plots along, but the overarching sense of family history and the gradual building of all the other characters is what makes his stories so engaging. Each time Flavia reminds us that Mrs. Mullet's food is inedible, for example, I find myself nodding in agreement rather than feeling bored by repetition. Three books into the series, Bradley has given us enough to work with that we feel at home at Buckshaw, like regular visitors to a home and a family that are starting to unfold for us. 

In The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, the second book in the series, Bradley took us away from Buckshaw and into the village of Bishop's Lacey and all the gossip and memories of other people. By setting A Red Herring Without Mustard back on Buckshaw's grounds he's bridging what we know about the villagers with what we're learning about the de Luce's. Coming closer to home means seeing more of Flavia's inner world, including how hurt she is by the meanness of her older sisters, and how much she grieves for Harriet, a mother she never knew. I've always thought of Flavia as distinctly Miss Marple-esque, and although that comparison stands in terms of sleuthing and poking around, Bradley takes care in his third book to remind us that she is still a little girl and, although she's adept at solving crimes, the puzzles of life and relationships still need working out.

A Red Herring Without Mustard
by Alan Bradley
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from Anchor Canada edition)

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