Monday, March 14, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without Mustard
Alan Bradley
Hardcover: 416 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Press (February 8, 2011)
4/5 stars

A Red Herring Without Mustard is the third in Bradley's series about the precocious Flavia de Luce, a pre-teen chemistry savant growing up in a small English village in the 1950's.  Flavia is an engaging character, and she charmed me immediately when I read her first adventure, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The novels are told from Flavia's point of view, and her voice is at once amusing and real.  Her appeal has not diminished in this third novel, and it is pure reading pleasure to see what mischief she will create.

In A Red Herring Without Mustard, Flavia finds yet another dead body and sets off to solve the mystery before her frenemies from the police can.  As is usual with Flavia, she withholds evidence, generally gets in the way and succeeds in a spectacular manner.

The tension between Flavia and her sisters heats up considerably in this novel.  Not having siblings myself, I don't know if it's typical to be quite as brutal in pranks and revenge as the de Luce sisters are.  It is funny at times, but also very sad as these girls react in various ways to growing older without their mother.  Flavia's relationship with her father begins to subtly change, a very welcome development, and makes for some beautiful moments.

I did have two qualms about A Red Herring Without Mustard.  First, was the location of a certain bit of the theft.  (I think I can safely say that without spoiling any of the plot.)  It was difficult for me to believe that anyone would choose a location with such a high chance of being seen, where one so obviously did not belong.  For me, this weakened the plot a bit, but there was enough strengths that I could overlook it relatively easily.

My second concern is the number of dead bodies that Flavia keeps finding.  If she finds one a book, it won't be long before the entire village is dead.  And if, as has been the case, Bradley keeps bringing in characters from out of town to kill, the series will quickly loose both it's appeal and it's validity.  The similarity between A Red Herring Without Mustard and The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, for instance, is rather great (Flavia befriends a stranger from out of town and solves a new character's murder) on the surface. One wonders if perhaps Flavia might not need to take a vacation from corpses and turn to general crime instead?

Overall, A Red Herring Without Mustard is a charming, "cozy" mystery that invokes the feeling of different time and place in such a way as to make me want to visit.  Flavia is an endearing heroine and, despite my mild complaints, I look forward to reading her adventures and following her as she grows up and matures.

Note: This is the third in the series and to get full enjoyment from it, the series should be read in order.

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