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A RED HERRING WITHOUT MUSTARD
by Alan Bradley
Doubleday Canada, February 2011
400 pages
$29.95 CAD
ISBN: 0385665865


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Something is decidedly fishy both in Bishop's Lacey and at Buckshaw, the de Luce family estate. First, there's the smell rising off of Brookie Harewood, Bishop's Lacey's "riffraff" and presumed remittance man. Then there's the silver lobster pick, part of the de Luce family plate, which turns up where it shouldn't. There's a fishy odour in the caravan where a Gypsy fortuneteller is found seriously injured. Not to speak of the names the de Luce sisters hurl at one another - shrimp, prawn, and porpoise, among others - and of course, the Buckshaw housekeeper's name is Mrs Mullet.

So it should come as no surprise that when Flavia finds yet another dead body on the Buckshaw grounds, it is danglng from a statue of Poseidon. And for those who have been following intrepid eleven-year-old Flavia's career from the beginning, even less surprising that she will follow the trail, however confused, that leads to a solution to the mystery. Or rather, mysteries, because at least one other lurks behind the violence of the present moment.

No doubt there is a hardened group of readers to whom the very idea of a mystery series featuring an eleven-year-old heroine with a bicycle named Gladys and an obsession with chemistry would rank right up there with talking kitties in the twee sweepstakes. And if I had not delightedly devoured all three of Flavia's adventures to date, I might have counted myself among their number. So I have given some thought to what it is about them that is so beguiling.

What Alan Bradley manages to pull off so well (and remember, he's a fairly elderly Canadian gentleman who is said never to have set foot in England before writing THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE) is to create a little world that has its basis only in books, those books that we plunged into, heart and soul, when were eleven too. Nominally the books are set shortly after the Second World War, but they could as easily be set just after, or even just before, the First. Like so many of the best books of that period, the children are half-orphans, with a dead mother and an incompetent father. They have been left to carry on as best they can and each of the de Luce sisters has fashioned a life for herself: Ophelia, self-obsessed but brilliantly musical, Daphne, immersed in the books she finds in the ancestral library, and Flavia, in love with chemistry, apprentice poisoner, and budding detective. It is their ability to survive and thrive, however eccentrically, that enchants us now as it gave us hope when we were children.

The Flavia de Luce series is recommended as suitable for young adults, as of course it is. But I cannot help wondering if the present pre-adolescent generation of Hannah Montana, Justin Bieber tweeters and social networkers will fall under its spell. Perhaps eleven-year-olds are now more comfortable forging an identity with a large group of friends, no matter how virtual, than with going it alone, as Flavia must. But one hopes that they would respond to the developing moral sense that Bradley touchingly describes in her and to her stubborn courage that both gets her into serious difficulties and out of them again

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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