Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A Red Herring Without Mustard (Alan Bradley)

After her last mystery, Flavia de Luce tries her hand at solving a case that is much closer to home. Flavia has invited the gypsy Fenella to stay at The Palings, a wide field on the edge of the de Luce property. But instead of being safe and protected, the old woman is brutally attacked here. Flavia of course takes it upon herself to get to the bottom of things, and even ends up discovering one or two important secrets about her own family.

I thought that the mystery in A Red Herring Without Mustard would be my favorite in the series, since it involved gypsies and buried secrets -- and hinted at Flavia's mother's past. But as the novel progressed, I was increasingly drawn away from it by other things. It didn't keep my interest as well as the first two books did. Flavia is still her old clever and impatient self; if anything, she's grown too self-confident of her own abilities and refuses to listen to those in authority. I've always enjoyed this aspect of the series. Though we see the stories unfold through Flavia's eyes, we are also quite aware of how difficult it is for the inspectors to do their job when you have someone like her doing her own brand of investigations. It's not as if the detectives are incompetent, but having Flavia going through crime scenes and keeping evidence for herself certainly complicates their task. If it weren't for Flavia and her troubles with her family (her sisters still torture her and what's worse, she's just found out that their financial problems has her father auctioning off the family silver), I would have probably saved this book for a later date.

Daphne, Flavia's second eldest sister explains the title. "Red herring, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was considered an inferior dish," Daffy replied, with an especially withering look at me on the word "inferior." (p162) It certainly highlights the inferiority theme throughout the book: the gypsies were discriminated against, the favored suspects in local crimes; the Hobblers are a fictional religious sect that were seen as Dissenters and Nonconformists, certainly taking on an Othered role in the narrative; and finally, that concerning Flavia herself, continuously bullied by her older sisters and treated as unimportant. But a red herring in mysteries also refers to a misleading clue that draws the reader's or investigator's attention from the main conflict, and there's certainly one here. Mystery-wise, there was not much to excite me. But when it comes to learning more about the de Luce family, A Red Herring Without Mustard still satisfies.

A final note: I've always wondered why, for all her inquisitiveness, Flavia has never really delved into her mother's disappearance. She certainly learns a bit more in this book but it never really spurs her to find more. I guess that's something to look forward to in the other books of the series.


Tin said...

I love genius kids in literature. The Baudelaire kids, and The Mysterious Benedict Society kids comes to mind. And Artemis Fowl too. This book seems like something I might like if only for Flavia de Luce. :D

dementedchris said...

I enjoy those books, too, Tin! That's the kind of company that Flavia's likely to keep. :P