The services of a first-rate mind

I was at my in-laws’ recently, looking for some light vacation reading, and my mother-in-law loaned me A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley.  It’s a classic cozy English village mystery crossed with a Nancy Drew young investigator mystery by way of its heroine, the chemistry-obsessed tween Flavia de Luce.

Red Herring is the third Flavia de Luce mystery, so purists will likely want to start with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  I didn’t feel at too much of a loss.  Allusions to earlier events and relationships were relatively clear or easy to sort out, a result of Bradley working firmly within two familiar traditions with all the usual tropes–the dead mother, absent but affectionate father, teasing older sisters, exasperated inspector, and the usual crew of village gossips, idiots, and gentle souls.

Red Herring centers around the arrival in the village of a Gypsy woman who is assaulted and nearly killed.  Thefts, antiques, a missing baby, crackpot Dissenters, local geography, the de Luce family history and finances, tragic pasts, and petty village grievances produce a mish-mash of red herrings, false trails, and genuine clues.  Bradley does a nice job of allowing his police to do police work while Flavia sleuths in a way that only a child–nosy, courageous, and yet knowledgeable of the local players–can.

A reader’s enjoyment of the book depends largely on whether or not they enjoy spending time with Flavia.  I found her precocious, engaging, and fun with enough genuinely “tween” characteristics to counterbalance those necessary to make her a good detective.

She is obsessed with chemistry, and the lessons on the history of chemistry and chemical processes get a little pedantic but also feel a bit like any child talking about their obsession (think of talking to an 11-year-old about Minecraft or Pokemon or superheroes).  There is something a bit odd about this girl, that makes her puzzle-solving believable:

I have no fear of the dead.  Indeed, in my own limited experience I have found them to produce in me a feeling that is quite the opposite of fear.  A dead body is much more fascinating than a live one, and I have learned that most corpses tell better stories.

And yet, she’ll slip just as quickly into typical 11-year-old hyperbole, exclaiming that “Compared with my life, Cinderella was a spoiled brat” when victim of her sisters’ taunts and tricks.

Bradley doesn’t take his protagonist too seriously.  Speaking through other characters, we are regularly reminded that she is a child navigating an adult’s world.  One character tells her to “Spare us the pout.  There’s enough lip in the world without you adding to it.”  In another scene, Flavia’s misreading of the exasperated inspector is clearly aimed at the reader:

Although it sounded like a dry chuckle, the sound I heard must really have been a little cry of dismay from the Inspector at having so foolishly lost the services of a first-rate mind.

He peppers the narrative with clever asides that keep it rolling along nicely, such as:

A few more coarse oaths and my pursuer was gone.  I cannot bring myself to record his exact words, but will keep them in mind against the day I can put them to good use.

And my favorite:

I paused for a moment to stare up at the Poseidon fountain.  Old Neptune, as the Romans called him, all muscles and tummy, was gazing unconcernedly off into the distance, like someone who has broken wind at a banquet and is trying to pretend it wasn’t him.

All the while, Bradley delivers a delightful mystery that goes, in a few key scenes, to some surprisingly dark places without ever getting really grim.  Flavia’s youthful point of view allows Bradley to dance lightly across situations that adult readers will understand as far more dark and tragic than young Flavia perceives them to be.

Mysteries are not really a go-to book genre for me, so it is unlikely I’ll read any further in the series.  However, I’m a sucker for a good BBC mystery, having been obsessed with the old PBS Mystery series since my teenage years, and I am delighted to learn that there is a television series in the works (in very safe hands).  I eagerly await its arrival on Netflix.

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