Alan Bradley

A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without MustardA Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley is the third in the Flavia de Luce novel series. It was published in 2011. I read the first two in the series and enjoyed them and I think I will be giving this novel the same rating, four stars.

My only criticism of this novel is that it may have just a few too many red herrings and bunny trails. It can seem a bit repetitive. But, and this is key, Bradley writes such an engaging character the repetitiveness does not seem to matter. This series reminds me a lot of the Simon Green Ishmael Jones series. Basically, readers rather know what they are going to get – and if they like it, they like it. If they do not, then they don’t.  No great boundaries were pushed around here, nothing innovative or extraordinary was done.  This novel is not wholly unlike the previous two – however, if you liked those two, you will enjoy this one.  Maybe some readers will feel that the character and stories are stagnant or not going anywhere. I agree with that while at the same time I am satisfied with the novels as they are. I like spending time in Bishop’s Lacey; that’s enough for me.

… I had learned to start campfires, but I’d vowed that never again would I be caught dead trying to make a fire-bow from a stick and a shoestring, or rubbing two dry sticks together like a demented squirrel. – pg. 35, chapter 2

The thing that Bradley does very well is to confuse the reader with “reality.”  There are murders/crimes – but the unreliable narrator element makes the novel a bit more layered than it would be otherwise. The fact that the narrator is not willfully deceiving the reader is important – the narrator is an incredibly likeable eleven-year old. Obviously the perspective and understanding of such an individual is not as holistic and nuanced as an adult’s vision. So, when Flavia applies her efforts to mysterious and suspicious events, the reader really does not have much to go on.

“Good afternoon, Miss Flavia.”

“Good afternoon, Dogger.”

“Lovely rain.”

“Quite lovely.”

Dogger glanced up at the golden sky, then went on with his weeding.

The very best people are like that. They don’t entangle you like flypaper. — pg. 129, chapter 10

The novels are, generally, lightweight and breezy.  The pages turn quickly and some of the horrors are glossed over, of course. Interestingly, though, readers can pick up subtle hints and flavors of how wartime struggles affect matters.  There are also poignant moments filled with potential emotion. I say “potential” because Flavia is discovering she is caught in the middle of changing worlds, changing classes of society, changing viewpoints, etc.  She wrestles with the manners of the gentry, religion of a separate group, economic concerns of those dealing with wars, and the maturation of her own personality.  Bradley skirts some of these issues, but he does give glimpses of these struggles.

Under any other circumstances, I’d have said something rude and stalked out of the room, but I thought better of it.  The investigation of murder, I was beginning to learn, can demand great personal sacrifice. — pg. 216, chapter 17

I usually read these with half-attention. These novels do not require my full attention, which is good because sometimes I do not have much attention left to give. Sometimes it feels weird – like I am not really reading the novel and the pages are turning anyway. Yet I do always notice the awesome quotes or quips or whatever.

The main movement in this novel as regards the series is that Buckshaw is under continued financial stress and even the eleven-year old is beginning to feel it. Secondly, the subplot with Flavia’s mother continues. This is an enjoyable read.  It is witty and eventful and engaging. Its not intense literature, but it is fun enough to read in the summertime.

4 stars

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag


2010, Alan Bradley (Bantam Books)

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley is the second novel in the Flavia de Luce series. I read the first one and knew that I would read the second.  The first was published in 2009 and this novel was released in 2010. I gave the first novel four stars and I will do the same with this one.

I have found that these novels either appeal to readers or readers cannot tolerate them. I confess that I am under Flavia’s spell. I think she is splendid and I enjoy following her detective exploits around the countryside. Now, I do not think the negative comments regarding the novel are all invalid, but I very uncharacteristically find the novels so charming that it outweighs any flaws. Such an unbalanced view of novels is rare and I admit that usually I am preaching about the completeness and fullness of works.

Bishop’s Lacey and Environs is actually very key in providing much of the charm of the novel. It is possible that Flavia would be equally captivating in other settings, but I really enjoy the pastoral country setting in which she pursues her mischief. The historical aspects of the war hang around and the astute reader should be able to pick up some of this darkness lurking just outside of the view of the novel. Were it not for Flavia’s brightness, a definite heaviness would overtake the story.

Some readers are turned off by the fact that Flavia is as “smart” as she is. They find it difficult to get beyond the fact that this eleven-year old girl is probably stronger in chemistry than they are. I think they may forget that without a TV, computers, and ridiculous distractions, a child can actually be very smart and learn a great deal from books and experiment. Flavia is “lucky” in that she lives in an old country manor which provides her resources many children her age would not have. She has a private laboratory and hundreds of books/journals/magazines to pour over and experiment from. In fact, this is how she spends her free time.

Because at the end of the day, it is not Flavia’s intelligence that is remarkable. It is actually her initiative, curiosity, and independence that makes her so great. She is never, really, a bored child and she entertains herself by motivating herself. That is something that is uncommon and it is entirely refreshing to read about.  That’s the main thing that I love about reading these novels. I love how Flavia does not just sit on her duff all day, but has dozens of projects she is continuously working on.  And often these projects are just for the sake of doing/making – not for profit or under duress.

Flavia also has a keen wit regarding adults and their interactions with children. She seems to be just old enough to be able to wheedle and wriggle whatever she wants from adults. Some might call her a bit deceitful, but it seems typical of her age group.  Having independence, yet still requiring so much from adults. She often treats them as if they are her equal, but yet putting on a variety of faces depending on what she wants or what the adult thinks she might be.  Flavia is the ultimate actress and because we see everything through her viewpoint, she thinks she has adults wrapped around her finger.  In reality, if the viewpoint were switched, it is clear that many adults find her difficult, annoying, but also unique and intelligent.

Overall, though, the plots of the two novels in the series leave me rather unimpressed. Oh, I suppose the mysteries are tied up effectively and the number of red herrings and clues is commensurate with the crimes.  Flavia does solve the mystery – to the consternation of the local police.

“You’re right, of course, Sergeant.  We don’t have the same entreé to the homes and hearths of Bishop’s Lacey, do we? Its an area in which we could do better.” – Inspector Hewitt pg. 340.

If Flavia doesn’t play entirely fairly with the adults in Bishop’s Lacey – she also does not with the reader. We follow her around and enjoy her conversations, however, most of her deductions she keeps to herself.  This is probably why the last few chapters, as Flavia explains things to the adults she remains so fascinating and marvelous.

The crime in this novel is actually related to a previous event that took place in Bishop’s Lacey. In a sense, Flavia solves two crimes in this novel.  However, the pieces that connect the two events are really pushing the limits into the outlandish. I mean, it does seem a bit convoluted. It is all possible and understandable, but I am not certain how plausible it is. It would be easy to be skeptical of these things.

Chapter Four contains Flavia at her wittiest. There is a chunk where she thinks about Beethoven, and this has nothing to do with the mystery, but it is laugh aloud worthy. Enjoy it! I do not think I can think of Beethoven again without Flavia’s thoughts on the matter. Well done, Bradley! So, I definitely enjoyed this novel. I think it is more or less suitable for most readers, although, certain events in this one are a little disturbing. Because, truly, murder is fundamentally disturbing.

4 stars

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

sweetnessflaviaThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was published in 2009. It was written by Alan Bradley (b. 1938), a Canadian author.  The novel won an Agatha Award and a Barry Award among others.  The copy that I read has traveled around the world.  It was purchased from Amazon, traveled to NYC, to Egypt, and back again. It went to Charlotte, NC and to Charleston, SC. By the time it got into my paws, it looked well-enjoyed.  I read it all in about four days.

I really liked the main character of the novel.  She is witty, charming, and intelligent.  The fact that she is a young girl (11 years old) is kind of interesting, because I would not have thought to like the character so much.  She is too intelligent for her age. Really, no 11 year olds are that intelligent.  It works in this novel, though, because this is just a light fiction mystery and I am not demanding much from it.

The storyline is only average.  A murder occurs at the Buckshaw property.  The young main character, Flavia de Luce, sets about to solve the mystery – at first because she is intrigued, then later to clear her father of charges.  Flavia is incredibly resourceful and independent and is contrasted with her older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne.  Their mother, Harriet, died and the girls live at Buckshaw without a whole lot of parental interference.  Flavia uses her freedom to do scientific studies or to torment her sisters.  The murder gives her a chance to utilize all of her knowledge and skill and, as I think, saves her from some of the boredom she must feel at Buckshaw.

The little British village they live in is typical and predictable.  There are nosy old women, gossips, puttering inn-keepers, etc.  There are also a handful of teenagers who fall in and out of love with each other.  The local church is the parish home to all of the residents and Flavia takes us on a tour to all of the points of interest in the village.   The novel takes place in 1950 – and the country is still healing and rebuilding from the war efforts.  Not just the land and infrastructure, of course, but also the psychologies of the inhabitants.

There are a lot of witty moments and neat scenes in the novel.  One of my favorites was on page 49 where Flavia is rebelling against the cook’s seed biscuits:

Seed biscuits and milk!  I hated Mrs. Mullet’s seed biscuits the way Saint Paul hated sin.  Perhaps even more so.  I wanted to clamber up onto the table, and with a sausage on the end of a fork as my scepter, shout in my best Laurence Olivier voice, “Will no one rid us of this turbulent pastry cook?”

Overall, I think that Bradley has written a really good novel.  The main character is awesome, but the other characters are a little bit flat.  I like how accurately, smoothly, and insightful Bradley worked in the setting and time period.  This is done so well, it is difficult to imagine that the author did not grow up in Bishops Lacey in 1950 and that this is his first novel.  The plot is not great.  It is sufficient.  There are a lot of reasons to recommend this novel and I think it has reached a large audience.  I will definitely be trying to read the rest of the series and I am thrilled that there are several more books! Also, I am fond of how all of these colorful covers will look together on my bookshelves.

4 stars