CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 21. . . .February 3, 2012
A Red Herring Without Mustard. (A Flavia de Luce Novel).
Toronto, ON: Anchor Canada/Random House of Canada, 2011.
393 pp., trade pbk., $19.95.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
"You frighten me," the Gypsy said. "Never have I seen my crystal ball filled with so much darkness."
She cupped her hands around the thing, as if to shield my eyes from the horrors that were swimming in its murky depths. As her fingers gripped the glass, I thought I could feel ice water trickling down inside my gullet... Black hair, black eyes, black dress, red-painted cheeks, red mouth, and a voice that could only have come from smoking half a million cigarettes....
"I see -- a mountain," she went on, almost strangling on the words, "and the face -- of the woman you will become."
In spite of the stifling heat of the darkened tent, my blood ran cold. She was seeing Harriet, of course... my mother, who had died in a climbing accident when I was a baby.
The Gypsy turned my hand over and dug her thumb painfully into the very centre of my palm...
"This is the hand that you were born with... and this is the hand you've grown."
She stared at it distastefully as the candle flickered. "This broken star on your Mount of Luna shows a brilliant mind turned in upon itself -- a mind that wanders the roads of darkness."
If you have met Flavia de Luce in Alan Bradley's two novels preceding A Red Herring Without Mustard, you'll know that the Gypsy's description of Flavia's intelligence is completely accurate. Everything engages her curiosity about atoms and molecules, and she applies her talent in her laboratory to a variety of applications: the practical (creating dry cleaning fluid to freshen up an antique dress which belonged to her mysteriously-disappeared mother), the purely inquisitive (melting down a "ghastly Victorian brooch" just to see what will result), and, at times, the vengeful (whipping up a batch of magnesium silicate hydroxide, using it to scare her mean-minded and vanity-stricken older sister, Ophelia). When's the last time you've read about an 11-year-old who places nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, and water in a beaker, creating the famous solvent, aqua regia, and exclaims, "I have to admit that manufacturing the stuff myself never fails to excite me" (230).
As for "wandering the roads of darkness," this is more than one of those vague, one size-fits-all comments which are the stock in trade of fortune tellers and psychics everywhere. At the end of The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, the previous novel in this series, it was clear that the de Luce family's finances were becoming increasingly precarious. The cost of maintaining Buckshaw, the family home (which belonged to Harriet, who had died intestate) has become "positively ruinous, to say nothing of the taxes and the looming death duty." In order to appease "the snarling taxmen" (45), the girls' father, the Colonel, has already sold off some of his beloved stamp collection, hoping to obtain some much-needed cash for that Victorian brooch which Flavia pulverized and dissolved, and now, the de Luce family silver is being crated up for sale, too. Lack of money is only one of the shadows which darkens their lives. More than anything, it is the enduring mystery of Harriet's disappearance which grieves all of them, but especially Flavia, who most resembles her mother in spirit and character.
But, back to that fortune-telling session at the St. Tancred's parish fair, with which the book begins. Flavia is a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, except when it concerns her mother. The Gypsy tells her that "this... woman... is trying to come home from the cold. She wants you to help her." (5) As Flavia leaps up from the table, she upsets the candle which illuminates the tent, and within seconds, it's ablaze. The fortune-teller, Fenella Faa, is carried off to a first-aid tent, and when she revives, Flavia learns that long ago, at Harriet's invitation, Fenella and her husband had camped on the Palings, on the edge of the Buckshaw property, until the Colonel drove them away. But Flavia decides that she will do as her mother once did, and she offers Fenella her horse and her caravan refuge at the Palings again. "Harriet had once given these people refuge and my blood could hardly allow me to do otherwise." (16)
Fenella's safe refuge in the Palings is short-lived. Upon making a late-night visit to check on her guest, Flavia discovers that Fenella has been the victim of a brutal attack; someone has beaten her savagely, and there is blood everywhere in the caravan. Blood, and an odd smell: "Fish! The caravan reeked of blood and fish!" (57) Who attacked Fenella? Was it Mrs. Bull, who visited Fenella just prior to Flavia, and who accuses the Gypsy of having stolen her baby girl several years ago? Perhaps it's Brookie Harewood, a local poacher and all-around bad character, who always smells of alcohol and a "powerful fishy odor" (50). Before too long, Brookie is, himself, a murder victim, the weapon apparently being a lobster fork from the de Luce family silver set.
Not surprisingly, given the title of the novel, there are plenty of "red herrings," before the many mysteries of this story are finally solved. Although "red herring, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, was considered an inferior dish" (150), there's nothing inferior about A Red Herring Without Mustard. Readers of the previous two Flavia mysteries will enjoy her continuing story, and those who haven't will learn enough about her to want to read the two preceding novels. The interaction between the de Luce daughters is, at times, anything but "sisterly," and female readers are more likely to catch the nuances of their nastiness than will males. Although the book can be enjoyed by a very capable reader in the upper grades of middle school, I think that there's a sophistication about the language which makes this more likely to be fully savoured (with or without mustard) by high school readers.
And, the enduring mystery of Harriet de Luce continues; the book ends with the portrait of her and her three children, painted by Vanetta Harewood (Brookie's mother) being hung above the mantelpiece in Flavia's laboratory. How did it get there? Perhaps we'll find out in I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, the next book in the Flavia series, for which the author has provided the first chapter as a preview.
Joanne Peters, a recently retired high school teacher-librarian, resides in Winnipeg, MB.
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