A Red Herring Without Mustard

Alan Bradley's audience is hard to pin down. With an 11-year-old detective at its center—to whom the word "precocious" seems to inevitably apply—his award-winning Flavia de Luce mystery series occupies that slippery and subjective space between "young adult" literature and the traditionally grown-up mystery genre. Carefully rooted in a historically precise mid-century England, the series that opened with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie nevertheless spins an almost Gothic mood around the doings of its feisty heroine, a girl whose keen instincts are matched by her innate powers of deductive reasoning.

 

When A Red Herring Without Mustard—the third book in the series—opens, Flavia is getting her fortune told. "You frighten me," says the soothsayer, "Never have I seen my crystal ball so filled with darkness." But little does the gypsy woman know, living in her caravan at Bucksaw, that this prophecy, in fact, portends her own demise.

 

When Flavia later discovers the gypsy crumpled in her caravan, bloody and beaten, she immediately suspects that the crime is an act of revenge—a reprisal by someone wrongly convinced that the gypsy was to blame for the decades-old abduction of a local child. But in the midst of her mulling, Flavia finds another corpse, this one an infamous derelict once caught loitering on the de Luces' grounds. She sets off on her bicycle for the countryside and begins collecting clues that will help her solve these gruesome enigmas. On her journey, she meets a dashing painter who possesses a mysterious portrait, one whose subject matter and history might just be able to tell Flavia about her own inner workings and provenance. It's up to Flavia, with her virtuosic research skills and knack for toxicology, to parse the mystery and extract the truth from the falsehoods.

 

Not only does Bradley know how to make us turn a page, but A Red Herring Without Mustard—like The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag before it—has an inventive and witty protagonist, fully developed characters, and an acutely specific milieu: the land-rich, cash-poor gentry of rural post-war England. It's a richly imagined world—one that readers can navigate with delight and rapture. Bradley's message is a noble one that should not go lost on his youngest readers. Flavia's charm shows that intelligence comes with not only ethical responsibility but with moral satisfaction too.


Alice Gregory is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She's written for The New York Observer, n+1, New York, and NPR, among other publications. 

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