A Red Herring without Mustard: A Flavia de Luce Novel
by Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press, 2011.
399 pages, hardcover.
Award-winning author Alan Bradley returns with another beguiling novel starring the insidiously clever and unflappable eleven-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce. The precocious chemist with a passion for poisons uncovers a fresh slew of misdeeds in the hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey—mysteries involving a missing tot, a fortune-teller, and a corpse in Flavia’s own backyard. […] As the red herrings pile up, Flavia must sort through clues fishy and foul to untangle dark deeds and dangerous secrets. ~publisher’s comments.
“Ah, the ubiquitous Flavia de Luce.” ~Inspector Hewitt (120)
How much more can I go on about Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce Novels? Ask my husband and daughter. A Red Herring without Mustard is the third book in this charming series and it does not disappoint. The first novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, sets the tone and Bradley has yet to falter. I suppose you could read the novels out of order, but I don’t think you should. The primary reason is that while Flavia does undergo some change each novel, her progression is better marked over the three. Everyone’s development in character and relationship find greater depth and enjoyment when in the series from the beginning.
I could repeat everything I’ve said in the earlier reviews of the first to Flavia de Luce books. I will just link them (and Carl V.’s excellent review) later. What follows are my thoughts after reading A Red Herring without Mustard.
Bradley is not writing serial mysteries ala Nancy Drew where the characters life is secondary. He is writing about Flavia de Luce, protagonist and first person narrator. The novels are her life wherein she happens upon murder mysteries. The murder mystery of the sort Agatha Christie would influence complements the mysteries that one encounters being an eleven-year-old girl with the interests, family, and circumstances with which Flavia happens to find herself. A character-driven story with Flavia is not dull, but a little murder mystery is interesting, and what is a red herring without mustard?
Bradley has a way of working the odd title into the story. He offers the reader the quote before they flip the page for chapter one. Then Flavia will encounter it along the way (10) and contemplate it (163-4). Absences are felt in the previous novels. Flavia and family feel the loss of Harriet de Luce (the mother) though time has passed. That the de Luce family does not have the money to keep things running at Buckshaw (the estate) was introduced. In A Red Herring the absences are more acute, especially the problems of not having money and not having Harriet—as a wife and mother. The idea that one needs the other, as a red herring requires mustard, is pervasive. An estate without its silver, and family without its infant, a family without its mother, a world without magic, or even without logic…a mystery without it’s twists and turns…
I mentioned Agatha Christie and with Red Herring in the title it is hard to separate the expectation that at least one Red Herring is present in the novel. One could go so far as to wonder if the novel is a red herring…but not today. I loathe to spoil the experience of the read for you…
But. If you have read it (or have a mind to): Porcelain Lee. Bradley creates wonderfully strange characters, many who complicate the trail and side-track the protagonist in often frustrating and tension-building ways; however, none, I must note, are superfluous. Porcelain Lee is a character who complicates A Red Herring without Mustard. She also provides the Henry James flavor. Forget that fishy smell, I kept scenting Turn of the Screw. I closed the book and thought, “Was Porcelain real?”
Porcelain has gypsy roots. She shows up as if out of nowhere, is irrational, has strange gifts, and is often described in spectral terms—and then there is the “Harriet’s gown to dinner” scene (350+).
What Porcelain does that is lovely is pull Harriet and her absence from Flavia’s sole possession as the narrator. We can know how Flavia is affected by the loss of her mother, but we are held in her perceptions of how others might be affected, which is somewhat unreliable (recall that Flavia’s interactions with her family members are mysteries in themselves). Porcelain provides the comparative of how the household would actually look and act if Harriet were still there. [Porcelain, at best, is a forgery, of course.] The correlative further hollows out the void. Porcelain projects the abstract and puts it in more tangible form. And as seems often, she is a connection between the unseen and the seen (as is her grandmother)—and in her own logical way (via the magic of chemistry) Flavia does the same. Then there are the remarks (again) by Flavia about her own invisibility.
Porcelain is also strange in her agelessness. I could hardly remember her age. I could only remember that she was older than Flavia. It was the shifting between sisterly and maternal that disoriented me. Flavia needs both, sister and mother. The previous books remark upon the ‘absence’ of her father (which in this novel we will see a shift). This novel remarks upon the loss of sisterhood and Flavia grieves it even as she is trying to negotiate this strange and abusive relationship she has with her two older sisters. (Paralleled with Colin and Brookie, what destructive end am I to consider?) What antics may have been startling and somewhat darkly amusing previously take on a more tremulous and haunting aspect in A Red Herring. Vengeance on another with whom they perceive as having robbed them in the murder mystery parallels the Ophelia taking out her rage out on Flavia. The darkness that marks the sisters’ interactions are seen to not solely function as a means of dispensing affection. And Flavia doesn’t want to play anymore (or at least consider changing the game). “How could revenge hurt so keenly? It didn’t make any sense. It simply didn’t. Revenge was supposed to be sweet—as so was victory!” (237).
I don’t know where Bradley is taking the de Luce family. I am terribly intrigued and afraid. A Red Herring has the reader consider possible trajectories and dangerous/tragic outcomes.
Wasn’t father going to remark upon my cuts and abrasions?
And it was at that moment, I think, it began to dawn upon me—truly dawn upon me—that there were things that were never mentioned in polite company no matter what; that blue blood was heavier than red; that manners and appearances and the stiff upper lip were all of them more important, even, than life itself. (149)
Flavia is growing up quickly (but not too quick). She is really coming into her own, while still maintaining the very attributes that drew the reader in the first place. I suppose we should expect this kind of progression of character, and not just with Flavia. By book three, more and more characters are being lifted off the page and given greater form. The sisters, notably, are rescued from potential cliché and allowed a reader’s speculation in A Red Herring.
Another thing Bradley continues to do well is illustrate and proceed with the effects that these murders and Flavia’s subsequent detecting have on Flavia –and her family. Bradley looks at the consequences in layers: physical and emotional, individually and collectively. How might the family become involved? How might they help or inhibit? The inclusion of the family tightens the weave between the unsolved murders and unresolved issues at home. The murders jumpstart all sorts of conflicts in the de Luce family—it’s lovely.
“There had been a time when Buckshaw rang with laughter, or so I’d been told, but quite frankly, I could not even imagine it. The house seemed to hold itself in stiff disapproval, reflecting only the sound of all of us who lived within its walls.” (349)
There is mention since the beginning that Flavia de Luce could be read with the estate in mind as character and criticism. I have hardly touched on this before. The third, thus far, feels these remarks more keenly. The house is personified to greater degree, the historical presence of the place more influential to the murder mystery, and it is certainly more atmospheric. What it hides behind its symbol is a question on A Red Herring’s mind. The keeping up of appearances is a preoccupation, which in turn signals expectations. The house also has me thinking of its true owner, Harriet (who left no will, (47)). She was the house and, in a sense, still is. What is a house without its owner in residence?
I grabbed my faithful old BSA Keep-fit from the greenhouse. The bicycle had one belonged to Harriet, who had called her l’Hirondelle, “the Swallow”: a word that reminded me so much of being force-fed cod-liver oil with a gag-inducing spoon that I had renamed her “Gladys.” Who for goodness’ sake, wants to ride a bicycle with a name that sounds like a sickroom nurse?
And Gladys was much more down-to-earth than l’Hirondelle: an adventurous female with Dunlop tires, three speeds, and a forgiving disposition. She never complained and she never tired, and neither, when I was in her company, did I. (102)
Gladys, the bicycle, is also further developed as a character. The read can be depressing if you consider that Flavia’s only friend is an inanimate object. It can be exciting if you consider the extent of Flavia’s imagination. It can be charming, because the interactions between bike and girl are wonderfully written, very sweet and humorous.
A Red Herring without Mustard is a pleasant distraction that has me wondering where Alan Bradley is headed with his brilliantly conceived Flavia de Luce. Looks like we’ll have to wait nearly a year….
According to Alan Bradley’s website, Book Four has recently been titled I Am Half-Sick of Shadows and is “tentatively slated” January 2012.
“I Am Half-Sick of Shadows” is, of course, from Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”. Is there a clue there? Well maybe … there are definitely shadows in the book. This title supercedes the previously-announced “Death In Camera”. Publication (according to Books On Tape) is tentatively slated for January 31st, 2012.”
Carl V. at “Stainless Steel Droppings” reviews A Red Herring without Mustard.
My earlier ramblings on the first two Flavia de Luce novels: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. In these I remark upon Bradley’s excellent and consistent way with Story.