Day 974: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d

Cover for Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mew'dI wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue with Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mystery series, because it seemed to be going a bit off-kilter with the turn toward espionage. Still, at the end of the last novel, Flavia was sent home from school, and I thought I would continue with the return to Bishop’s Lacey.

Now 12 years old, Flavia returns near Christmas time happy to be home, but her expectations of being greeted by the family aren’t met. Instead, only Dogger comes to the station, reporting that Flavia’s father is in the hospital with pneumonia.

Flavia isn’t allowed to visit him, so she distracts herself by going out to see friends. The vicar’s wife, Cynthia Richardson, is also ill and sends Flavia on an errand to take a message to Mr. Sambridge, the church wood-carver. At Sambridge’s she finds the man dead, hanging from a frame on the back of his bedroom door.

One clue Flavia picks up is a curious link to Oliver Inchbald, the author of children’s poetry who has been dead for some years. Mr. Sambridge has a collection of his books, including one owned by a local girl, Carla Sherrinford-Cameron. When Flavia looks into this connection, she finds that Inchbald died in odd circumstances, apparently pecked to death by seagulls on a small island. The woman who identified the body died shortly thereafter in an aqualung accident.

Were all these deaths suspicious? As Flavia investigates, she turns up some odd connections.

link to NetgalleyThis Flavia novel lacks the snap and humor of the first few books. As Flavia ages, she’s becoming more thoughtful, but she is not nearly as entertaining. There are still some flashes of that wonderful combination of book knowledge and naivete that made the first novels so good, though. And I confess, I did not figure out the solution to the mystery, although I felt that one secret was obvious. On the other hand, I’m not happy with what is happening in Flavia’s personal life.

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Day 680: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

Cover for As Chimney SweepersAfter 12-year-old Flavia de Luce’s last adventures, she starts out this most recent novel in the series on her way to Toronto. She has been sent away to school, to Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy. Lest you worry that this will turn the series into a nonmagical version of Harry Potter, never fear.

Flavia has arrived by boat in the company of Dr. and Mrs. Rainsmith, an unlikable couple who are associated with the school. They drop her there late at night, and true to form, Flavia has discovered a corpse by morning.

Or rather, another of the boarding students by the name of Collingwood has. In an attempt to hide from the headmistress when she is out of her room at night, Collingwood crawls up the chimney in Flavia’s room, only to fall down again along with a desiccated body wrapped in a Union Jack.

Of course, Flavia is soon on the job, trying to identify the body. Several girls are rumored to have disappeared from the school. And then there is the mysterious death of Dr. Rainsmith’s first wife, even though she went overboard during a cruise, which makes the death a little harder to fit.

Although the series has taken a somewhat fantastical turn, with Flavia seemingly being groomed to be some sort of spy, she continues her inimitable self, naive enough to draw some pretty ridiculous conclusions from her evidence but smart enough to find the facts, and entirely neglectful of the school rules. I have to admit, though, that I miss Flavia’s village and the eccentric members of her family.

I’m sure I am not the only one to enjoy Flavia, an expert in chemistry who thrills over an electron microscope but still believes in Santa Claus, as we discovered a few volumes ago.

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Day 521: The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

Cover for The Dead in Their Vaulted ArchesThe tone of The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is a little more somber than in the previous Flavia de Luce mysteries. Just as Buckshaw was about to be sold out from under the family in the previous novel, we learned that Flavia’s mother was found. Years ago lost in a mountaineering accident, Harriet de Luce was the owner of the house. Her fortune could not be passed along to her family without proof of her death. Now, her body is on the way home.

Flavia is surprised to find her mother’s remains have received a military escort. In fact, ex-prime minister Churchill is at the village’s small train station when the body arrives.

A tall man approaches Flavia at the station and asks her to tell her father that “the Gamekeeper” is in jeopardy. Moments later he is dead, having been pushed under a train.

I was a little surprised to find Bradley playing a few of the tricks that I associate with less skillful mystery writers. One of them is to spin out the story by having a character delay doing what is obviously urgent. Flavia waits quite awhile to convey this message from the tall man.

Part of the charm of these novels is always 11-year-old Flavia, who combines high intelligence with childish naïveté and some wild ideas. This time she decides to bring her mother back from the dead using some old chemistry experiments. While trying to do this, she finds her mother’s will inside her jacket. She doesn’t pass that on right away, either.

Flavia’s adventures this time include flying in a Gipsy Moth and getting involved in espionage. Of course, there is a murderer to capture and family secrets to explore.

Still, I didn’t find this novel as much fun as I usually do. Probably because of the subject matter, Bradley has to step back quite a bit from the humor.

Flavia is growing more thoughtful, although she is still as reckless. The novel hints at a change of scene in upcoming books, and although I think Buckshaw is wonderful, perhaps we need one.

Day 282: Speaking From Among the Bones

Cover for Speaking From Among the BonesEleven-year-old chemist and detective Flavia de Luce is back with her latest adventure in Speaking From Among the Bones. An expert in poisons and an accomplished snoop, Flavia has already solved four crimes before the ripe old age of twelve.

Having accompanied her sister Ophelia (Feely) to her organ practice one night, Flavia hears a flapping in the organ pipes that she thinks is a trapped bat. Feely is practicing for the Easter Sunday service, as Mr. Collicutt, the organist, has vanished.

The next morning when Flavia goes back to the church to get the bat out of the pipes (so that she can look at its blood under her microscope), she gets distracted into eavesdropping on a confrontation between the vicar and the bishop’s secretary over the unearthing and reburial of the bones of St. Tancred from his crypt in the church. The vicar has previously received permission to do this and now the bishop is trying to rescind it through a magistrate.

The vicar insists on going ahead, and the men open the sealed crypt enough so that Flavia can look into it. Inside the crypt is the body of Mr. Collicutt, with his head in an old gas mask.

Flavia’s investigations take her as usual all over the village and turn up all sorts of secrets, including a man hidden away in an old house, a secret passageway into St. Tancred’s crypt, and the whereabouts of a diamond that was buried with his body in the saint’s crozier. At the same time she worries about family problems, such as her sister’s impending marriage and the sale of the crumbling family mansion, Buckshaw, for back taxes.

As usual, Flavia herself is the most charming part of the series, as she plunges recklessly into and out of difficult situations, contemplates the structure of blood and the properties of ether, irritates her older sisters, and rides all over the village on her trusty bike Gladys. The novel is funny, the mystery absurd, the writing splendid, and Flavia always entertaining.

Day 231: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Cover for I Am Half-Sick of ShadowsAnother comic mystery starring the eleven-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is the usual fun, even though the clues don’t add up until after the murderer is revealed.

Flavia’s father has rented out the house for Christmas to a film company in an effort to save the estate, since the family is so badly in debt. On Christmas Eve, the lead actors, Phyllis Wyvern and Desmond Duncan, perform a small benefit concert for the village of Bishop’s Lacey, after which everyone is snowed in by a blizzard. During the night, Wyvern is murdered, strangled to death with a length of film. This situation leaves the entire film crew and population of the village as potential suspects.

Although Flavia doesn’t know who the killer is, she becomes trapped on the roof where she has gone to shoot off fireworks and perform a scientific experiment. She has devised a super-sticky bird lime and has spread it all over the roof in an effort to capture Father Christmas, if he exists. Unfortunately, the murderer finds some reason to suspect that Flavia might be on his or her trail.

Day 134: A Red Herring Without Mustard

Cover for A Red Herring Without MustardBest Book of the Week!
A Red Herring without Mustard is another of Alan Bradley’s delightful, comic mysteries featuring Flavia de Luce, the eleven-year-old detective and chemist.

In this book a mysterious gypsy woman is nearly beaten to death after Flavia allows her to camp on de Luce land. Something odd is going on. After Flavia surprises a neighborhood thug in the de Luce’s drawing room when everyone else is in bed, she finds him dead the next day, hanging from the trident of a fountain of Poseidon.

As usual, Flavia races all over the countryside on her bike Gladys, feuds with her sisters, consorts with her father’s shell-shocked batman, and tumbles into trouble in this novel, set in England just after World War II.

Bradley’s plots are implausibly complex, but it is not for the mysteries that I read these books but for the funny, irrepressible character of Flavia.

Day 21: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Cover for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the PieI don’t know that anyone has invented a more delightful heroine than Flavia de Luce, the eleven-year-old sleuth in Alan Bradley’s funny, charming series. I haven’t read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie in a few years, but for series books I am trying to start with the first one, so I’ll do the best I can.

It is 1950’s Britain, and Flavia is an eccentric in a family full of eccentrics. She spends her time cooking up dangerous chemicals in the laboratory she inherited from a great uncle or riding around on her bicycle, Gladys, looking for trouble. Her father is a reclusive widower who stays locked up in the library with his stamp collection and worries about how to support their ramshackle estate. She engages in all-out warfare with her two older sisters, which includes putting poison ivy extract in Ophelia’s lipstick. Her only ally is the Dogger the gardener, her father’s batman from WW II who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

First, Mrs. Mullet the housekeeper finds a dead bird on the porch with a valuable stamp in its beak. Then a mysterious stranger calls upon her father, and they have an argument. Later Flavia finds the stranger dying in the cucumber patch. When her father is arrested for murder, Flavia decides to investigate. She finds out her father may have been involved in the suicide of a former schoolmaster and the theft of a valuable stamp. As Flavia cycles around the village of Bishop’s Lacey looking for clues and interviewing suspects, she may be putting herself in danger.

If you’re looking for a light mystery with plenty of twists and turns that will make you laugh out loud, look no further than any book featuring Flavia de Luce.