Monday, May 16, 2011

A crystal ball filled with darkness

When you look back on your childhood years, what things do you remember that aren't so common anymore? I think about the cap guns my brother Paul and I got every summer, or the little plastic army men I had so much fun with (especially when I got a bit older and discovered how much more fun they could be with firecrackers!). I think about old b&w cowboy shows or horror movies that weren't the stomach-churning gore fests like today’s slasher flicks but still scared the pants off me. Alan Bradley is also thinking back to his childhood (although his was a while before mine!) and he's writing about those things in his Flavia de Luce series (which I wrote about in an earlier post). In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie stamp collecting becomes more entertaining that you thought possible, and in The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag he remembers the travelling puppet shows that were popular before television displaced them. So, what does he come up with for his third book? Gypsies and fortune-telling.

A Red Herring Without Mustard: A Flavia de Luce NovelIn A Red Herring Without Mustard the body count is starting to pile up a little around Buckshaw, the de Luce family’s decaying mansion. When Flavia attends a church fair she accidentally burns down a fortune-telling gypsy's tent. To make amends, she invites the gypsy to park her horse and wagon on a remote spot on the grounds, but later discovers someone has viciously attacked the old woman. When the body of a local 'tough' is found hanging from a statue in the garden the next morning, Flavia starts her own investigation into the crimes - much to the consternation of Inspector Hewitt. But what's with the fishy smell at the crime scenes?

This is the kind of book I'd like to read slowly and savor the deliciously clever writing, but the story is so compelling that I can't help but read it quickly to find out what happens next. No matter how many times I tell myself to slow down and enjoy it, I just can't help myself (I took this one on a short vacation and found myself finished before the return flight was half over). Flavia's sisters are as mean as ever and I was glad to see a renewed attention on chemistry in this story, something I'd enjoyed in the first book (even though I don't understand much of it) but which felt less emphasized in the second. And Flavia is one of the most charming characters to come along in a good long while - she might not sound exactly like an 11 year old, but she sure is funny - and it's a fun look down someone else's 'memory lane.'

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