Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Red Herring Without Mustard: Alan Bradley


Flavia de Luce is the imaginative and entertaining narrator of A Red Herring Without Mustard. This book is the third in a series, set in post World War II Britain, in the village of Bishop's Lacey. Flavia is the youngest daughter (around 11 years old) in the de Luce family; she lives with her two sisters and their father. Her mother died when she was young. Each member of the family is unique, and none of them communicate their feelings very well. Thus Flavia is an outsider and a loner, in her family and in the community, and she seems to like it that way.

The series does require a good amount of suspension of disbelief. In reality, not many eleven-year-old protagonists can solve a mystery. Not many of them have crimes happen so close to home. But the author, Alan Bradley, is successful at convincing us that Flavia can do this. And he tells the story so beautifully.


The mystery, the exposure of the culprit or culprits in each book, is good, but not the main draw. The thing that keeps me coming back is Flavia, with her love of chemistry and science, her determination and her fearlessness.

We do have a policeman, Inspector Hewitt, that is sometimes at odds with Flavia. They have a mutual respect and liking for each other, although it is not always apparent.

Flavia plans to show Hewitt a body on the grounds of their estate:
“Hold on,” Inspector Hewitt said. “You’ll do no such thing. I want you to keep completely out of this. Do you understand, Flavia?”

“It is our property, Inspector,” I said, just to remind him that he was talking to a de Luce.

“Yes, and it’s my investigation. So much as one of your fingerprints at the scene and I’ll have you up on charges. Do you understand?”
Later, Flavia asks about some notes he is taking:
It’s not polite to ask ” he said with a slight smile. “One must never ask a policeman his secrets.”

“Why not ”

“For the same reason I don’t ask you yours.”

How I adored this man! Here we were the two of us engaged in a mental game of chess in which both of us knew that one of us was cheating.

At the risk of repetition, how I adored this man!
In Flavia's world, there are other mysteries. What happened to her mother? Why do her sisters torment her? How will they solve the problem of the lack of funds to support the estate? I actually wish they would work through these problems at a faster rate, although the first three novels seem to take place within the same year.

In my review of the first book in the series, I said that these books were not young adult books. I have since reconsidered that opinion. The books are on Young Adult book lists, and I think they work equally well for young adults or adults.

I have read and reviewed two of the series:
 The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
 The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

Here are some other reviews of this book that may entice you to try the series.
A review by Sarah Weinman at National Post
At Mysteries in Paradise
At Stainless Steel Droppings

A Red Herring Without Mustard is the tenth book I have read for the Canadian Book Challenge 6, which began in July of 2012.

From the author's bio at the site for the Flavia de Luce series:
Alan Bradley was born in Toronto and grew up in Cobourg, Ontario. With an education in electronic engineering, Alan worked at numerous radio and television stations in Ontario, and at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University) in Toronto, before becoming Director of Television Engineering in the media centre at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, SK, where he remained for 25 years before taking early retirement to write in 1994. He became the first President of the Saskatoon Writers, and a founding member of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild.

16 comments:

  1. Oh Tracy, These books sound good and I can get them all on audio from the Free library of Philadelphia. I did not know they would count for the Canadian challenge I'm off to check one out!

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    1. Peggy, I think you will enjoy them. The fourth one has a Christmas theme and I will read it later in the year.

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  2. I've read a couple of these books, Tracy, and enjoyed them very much. I agree that they would work well as YA books too.

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    1. Sarah, I am glad I tried the Flavia series. Initially, I did not think they would be my cup of tea, and I was very wrong.

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  3. Tracy - Oh, I like this series very much. As you say, it does require some suspension of disbelief. But Bradley does such an effective job of weaving a story that it's not hard to do that. It's really not. And I do like the sense of place and time.

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    1. Margot, I don't know how realistic the picture of the time and place is, but I enjoy it regardless.

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  4. I've read all these books and so far I think this is the best one. The next one (and the shortest of the books so far), I AM HALF SICK OF SHADOWS, has a meager mystery plot with an obvious murderer and no real surprises at all. At least for me. It seemed rushed off in order to be released for a Christmas gift marketing ploy. But RED HERRING... has a well plotted mystery, some unusual incidents (the body hanging on the fountain sculpture is the most original part, I think), and sets up all sorts of interesting possibilities about Flavia's birth, her mother's past, and further develops the family characters. Dogger, the man-of-all-work with a secret past, is my favorite of all the series regulars.

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    1. John, I wish I was as good as you are at describing what I like about a book. I agree with your assessment. Dogger is also my favorite character, and I wish he had been more involved in this one.

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  5. I agree with John about the Christmas one, it is by far the weakest of the books. I have the new one in my to-read pile and I really hope Bradley is back on track. Mustard was a good story, but my favorite so far is still the first one.

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    1. Mary R, Good to know that about the 4th story; I won't be disappointed. I think I liked the first one and this third one about the same, did not like the story in the 2nd one quite as much.

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  6. This isn't something I'd usually go for, but maybe I ought to try reading a bit out of my normal comfort zone.

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    1. Col, I avoided the series for quite a while. Looked too cute and cozy. I am glad I finally gave in and tried one.

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  7. TracyK: I should be reading the series as the author lived for many years in Saskatchewan but *sigh" there are so many books I want to read. I appreciated your review. Maybe I will get to it in next year's Canadian Challenge. You are doing well this year and should have no trouble finishing the challenge.

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    1. Bill, I had wondered if you had tried this series. I know what you mean about so many books to read. I sure am trying hard to complete the challenge.

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  8. Tracy, thanks for this review. I haven't read an Alan Bradley novel before or any series-based fiction in a long time. While I read all kinds of books every week, I don't have enough time to review them with the dedication that you do.

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    1. Prashant, You cover so many interesting topics, no wonder you don't have time. And the reviews you have done, I have enjoyed very much. I enjoy reviewing each mystery (and other fiction) because now I can remember what I read and what I liked about it. Otherwise, I often forget the specifics.

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