Sunday, April 24, 2011
A RED HERRING WITHOUT MUSTARD by Alan Bradley
A Red Herring Without Mustard was my favorite of Alan Bradley's three Flavia de Luce novels.
Set in England just after World War II, the story begins when eleven-year-old Flavia burns down a gypsy's tent. It is a typical preteen accident. Flavia knocks over a candle as she is having her fortune told. Then she saves the gypsy.
Flavia is both a preteen and an incredibly precocious person whose special interest is chemistry. Her chemical knowledge fills the story and plays a part in her solution of the mystery.
The tent burning accident leads Flavia to form a friendship with the old gypsy and, later, with the old gypsy's granddaughter Porcelain. Someone attacks the gypsy. Then a community layabout nere-do-well is killed, his body left hanging on a decrepit statue of Poseidon in the decaying garden of Flavia's ancestral home.
So the chase is on. Flavia is determined to find out who did the killing. Flavia's stubbornness, much stronger than determination, helps make her the memorable character she is.
Flavia's situation is much as it has been. Her almost-impoverished upper class family is at odds with one another. Her mother's tragic death in a skiing-hiking accident hovers over everything.
The ancestral house is decaying. The Georgian and Victorian portraits of Flavia's stiff grandparents, great grandparents, and beyond seem accusatory. The old mansion's subterranean tunnels form a major setting in the plot.
Flavia's investigation leads her to learn about an unusual religious sect, their practices, and how those practices lead, if not to murder, then to tragedy.
Flavia's sisters bully her, as usual, though they all still love each other in an odd sort of way. Her conflicted father loves Flavia too. He respects her for her ability to get to the bottom of unusual situations.
Flavia is funny, sad, determined, and at odds with herself in the way that only a preteen/teenager could ever be.
The story has a sense of darkness and foreboding. At one point, Flavia says--
"I awakened to the roar of water on the roof tiles and in the drains--the sound of Buckshaw in the rain.
"Even before I opened my eyes, I could hear that the whole house had come alive in a way that it never did in dry weather--a deep, wet breathing in and out--as if, after a mad dash down the centuries, the tired old place had just thrown itself across the finish line.
"There would be little winds in the corridors, I knew, and sudden cold drafts would spring up in the out-of-the-way corners. In spite of its size, Buckshaw had all the comfort of a submarine."
And about the title. A red herring without mustard is a poor person's dish. The title reflects both what is happening to Flavia's family, and in an even sadder way, what is happening in the rest of the story.
I enjoyed this book and especially Flavia. Her saddness, her determination, and her overall struggles as a preteen in a changing world made this, for me, the best of Bradley's offerings so far.
I checked this book out from our local library as an e-book.