Again and again

A Red Herring Without Mustard
Alan Bradley

I have a real problem with mysteries. I don’t like them. Add to that the fact that I’m an Anglophile and my problem gets curiouser and curiouser–for who does mysteries better than the British? Miss Marple? No thank you. Poirot? I’ll pass. Sherlock Holmes? Not so much. And I admit I’ve never even cracked a P.D. James. My husband just shakes his head. I think it may be the fear factor (I don’t do scary anything–books, movies, amusement park rides, Halloween horror houses) or it may be I get weary trying to keep every character straight. As for the clues–when they’re revealed at the book’s end, I find that I missed them entirely.

But for some reason, little Flavia DeLuce has just wormed her way into my heart and I’ll go anywhere for her–even into the heart of a mystery. I must say that the first novel was slow going what with all the chemistry references (so what the heck is magnesium silicate hydroxide anyway? And why should I care?!) But the house–glorious Buckshaw, all back stairways, damp wallpaper, musty Victorian (literally!) furniture–made the going easier. And Father–absent-minded, stamp-loving, grieving widower–drew me in. But of course it was 11-year-old Flavia–tormented little sister, precocious, desperately missing her mother–who has brought me back again and again.

Flavia befriends a gypsy after burning down (accidentally, of course!) her tent at a church fete. Offering  shelter on Buckshaw’s meadow lands, the Palings, Flavia visits the old woman the next day only to find her nearly bludgeoned to death. Enter the gypsy’s granddaughter Porcelain, add another body (Brookie Harwood, town swindler), a secret religious sect, the Hobblers, and you’ve got a Bradley-style mystery. And while in  Flavia encounters real danger in The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, this time she escapes with only a sprained ankle.

In Red Herring we also get more from Flavia than ever before about her mother Harriet when she discovers a portrait, never claimed because of Harriet’s death and long stored at the artist’s cottage. Flavia describes her first look at the painting:“Harriet. My mother. She is sitting on the window box of the drawing room at Buckshaw. At her right hand, my sister Ophelia, aged about seven, plays with a cat’s cradle of red wool, its strands entangling her fingers like slender scarlet snakes. To Harriet’s left, my other sister, Daphne, although she is too young to read, uses a forefinger to mark her place in a large book: Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Harriet gazes tenderly down, a slight smile on her lips, like a Madonna, at the white bundle which she holds supported in the crook of her left arm: a child–a baby dressed in a white, trailing garment of elaborate and frothy lace–could it be a baptismal gown? I want to look at the mother but my eyes are drawn repeatedly back to the child. It is, of course, me.” 

I love the moments when Harriet reaches out to Flavia somehow–first her abandoned car; now the portrait. It is the mystery of Harriet that intrigues me more than lost heirlooms or murder. Something is left out of the story of Harriet’s death. But what? Take this from Flavia after she studies the portrait that first time: “Something about the portrait nagged at my mind: some half-forgotten thing that tried to surface as I stood staring at the easel … But what was it?” I’m guessing that we’ll find out what that “something” is, and perhaps even (some book soon?) find out more about the circumstances surrounding Harriet’s death disappearance. (See? Perhaps I’m getting into this mystery thing after all.)

And if writer Alan Bradley can get this mysteryphobe to return again and again–and soon another again!–then maybe I’m not so averse to mysteries after all. I just needed to find the right one.

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