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A Red Herring Without Mustard: A Flavia de Luce Novel (Flavia de Luce Mysteries) - Alan Bradley

Whenever I’m with other people, part of me shrinks a little. Only when I am alone can I fully enjoy my own company.” Flavia de Luce

Flavia de Luce spends a lot of time by herself somewhat by choice and somewhat by her incompatibility with the rest of the household. She is the youngest of three daughters and is most decidedly lacking from any constructive supervision. Her father is a philatelist and spends most of his time intently examining stamps with a magnifying glass for those hairline faults that make them valuable and collectible. Her mother Harriet, the source of the family money, and the owner of the Buckshaw estate, had the audacity to disappear into the wilds of Nepal. She is presumed dead. 

Money is tight because the family estate is tied up, with much uncertainty of ever being resolved, because of the premature demise of Harriet. So even though they live on this grand family estate it is slowly crumbling down around their ears. Wallpaper dangles from walls and ceilings. There are more drafts every year and the gardens have been turned back to nature. 

Flavia spends most of her time trying to avoid her older sisters Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy). Those aren’t exactly endearing nicknames that Flavia has assigned them, but they have been well earned. Feely is concerned about clothes and improving her already beautiful complexion. Daffy is a voracious reader, and rarely takes her eyes from the pages unless it is to help Feely with their latest bit of fun torturing Flavia. The whole de Luce family is left to their own devices becoming more and more caricatures of themselves and less the well rounded individuals they would be if Harriet were still in the picture. Flavia whenever possible escapes to her laboratory. Her great-uncle Tarquin de Luce had installed a full working laboratory with bunsen burners, shelves of chemicals, and beakers which provides everything an eleven year old with an inquisitive mind needs to discover the mysteries of the universe.

Finding her hands covered with blood she muses about the components of this red substance. 

”Red blood cells, I remembered from my chemical experiment, were really not much more than a happy soup of water, sodium, potassium, chloride, and phosphorus. Mix them together in the proper proportions, though, and they formed a viscous liquid jelly: a jelly with mystic capabilities, one that could contain in its scarlet complexities not just nobility but also treachery.”

She makes the family cook cry. Like most eleven year old girls she is capable of moments of great cruelty, but forget that part, tears are so interesting. 

”I had a special fascination with tears. Chemical analyses of my own and those of others had taught me that tears were a rich and wonderful broth, whose chief ingredients were water, potassium, proteins, manganese, various yeasty enzymes, fats, oils, and waxes, with a good dollop of sodium chloride thrown in, perhaps for taste. In sufficient quantities, they made for a powerful cleanser.”

Flavia is only eleven, but in the course of this her third adventure she is going to find her third dead body. (She is the Jessica Fletcher of Bishop’s Lacey.) Crime fascinates her and dead bodies aren’t really people, but fresh research specimens. It all begins with her going to see a gypsy to have her fortune told. In the process she manages to light the tent on fire. (These things tend to happen around Flavia.) In an act of self-preservation from the fire and from the impending punishment she flees the tent. The old gypsy woman does manage to escape the fiery inferno left in Flavia’s wake and in an act of contrition Flavia invites her to move her caravan to the family estate. Later when she comes to check on the gypsy she finds her bloodied and battered and this time reacts with more courage and saves her life. 

Who would want to hurt an old gypsy woman? The tale is older than Flavia. 

Meanwhile a body shows up dangling from Poseidon's trident in the Buckshaw gardens with a de Luce silver shell fish fork stuck up one nostril. This is the very same young man that Flavia caught in the house the night before attempting to liberate an antique from the house. This sends Flavia on a flurry of investigations that somehow all have to be tied into a bow if she is ever going to find out the truth.

She is beset with red herrings. 

”...a cup of ale without a wench, why, alas, ‘tis like an egg without salt or a red herring without mustard.” Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene A Looking Glasse, for London and Englande (1592)

She is attacked by a gigantic rooster during a bit of snooping and illegal entry. She is chased about by unscrupulous antique dealers. She meets Porcelain, a niece of the gypsy woman, and doesn’t realize how lonely she is until she meets a person that is odd enough to be a real friend to her. Flavia, as always, is in trouble with the police. Her curiosity will not let anything lie despite orders to the contrary. She discovers hidden passages beneath Buckshaw that had been forgotten for generations. This takes her to icky places she has never been before. 

”Even though I ducked the thing, its slimy finger still managed to caress my face, as if it were dying for want of human company.”

And what is going on with the Wobblers? They are a sect of religious fanatics that believe their children must be dunked in running water by the heel in the same way as Achilles. Their membership is secret, but then secrets are what Flavia most likes to unlock. 

So spend some time with a precocious young lady growing up in England shortly after WW2. She will make you feel proud to know her one moment quickly followed by the need to give her a good shake the next. She hatches elaborate plans of revenge against her foes (her sisters), but always manages to restrain herself from actually launching them. Sometimes planning the demise of our most ardent enemies is cathartic enough without actually destroying them. These aren’t the type of books that I would typically read, but when each new volume comes out I become a buying zombie. I know how it is to feel lonely in a house full of people. I only wish I’d possessed Flavia’s moxie. Oh and Flavia a word please…”Spare us the pout. There’s enough lip in the world without you adding to it.”