Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

Source of Book: Borrowed from the library.

I previously read the first two books in this series. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was Bradley’s debut novel (at the age of 70!) I reviewed that book in some detail. The second book, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, was also excellent, although I did not write a long review for that one.

As I mentioned in my review of the first book, this series combines elements of the English and the American detective novels. The eleven-year-old heroine, Flavia, is observant, and gathers information through conversations; but she also is a chemistry buff, and solves the mysteries partially through procedure.

This book, the third in the series, continues the high standard of writing established in the first two. Literary, artistic, and scientific references are lovingly hidden in the narrative – and the author takes care that they are accurate. Even the musical references have been carefully chosen. As a musician, I love to hear mentions of more obscure works, and this book does not disappoint. (Case in point: Flavia’s rather mean oldest sister, Ophelia, plays Schubert’s B Flat Major Piano Sonata when she is distraught. This piece is more sublime than turbulent, which adds a bit of interesting nuance to the character.) 

Really, only a cold, cold heart could resist this music. 
This book also continued the development of the various characters in the drama. Flavia and her sisters and father continue to gain a significant back story, and are revealed, despite the unreliable narration of Flavia, to have more depth than previously revealed.

Another notable and welcome development is the reappearance of Dr. Kissing, the frail old man introduced in the first book. His quiet rebellion against the strict life of the nursing home where he resides is both inspiring and poignant, and laced with his characteristic wry sense of humor.

I also liked the exploration of Flavia’s need for a true friend. This wish is not truly granted in this book, but Flavia’s growing awareness of the void makes for an additional layer to her psyche. Throughout the series, I have enjoyed the way the author develops the characters through the eyes of Flavia. She is a believably precocious young lady: arrogant, callow, immature, selectively perceptive, and self absorbed. One cannot help but like her, while realizing that she would be maddening in person. Bradley’s writing brings all of this out without letting the technique get in the way of the story. The reader can zip through the book without difficulty, but the characters and their inner conflicts remain with the reader every bit as much as the plot.

As I noted in my original review, Bradley is an unusually good modern writer in a genre that has become a cliché. While the first book had a plot that fit the genre, the subsequent installments have refused to follow a predictable pattern. As a result, the books read less like “murder mysteries,” and more like stories about intriguing characters that just happen to involve mysteries. The difference is subtle, but important. Sherlock Holmes and Watson (and so many others) live on in our imagination, not because of the clever plots (although the plots are sure clever), but because of the memorable characters, which transcend any particular narrative.

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