________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 23 . . . . February 17, 2012


I Am Half-Sick of Shadows. (A Flavia de Luce Novel).

Alan Bradley.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2011.
275 pp., hardcover, $29.95.
ISBN 978-0-385-66809-5.

Subject Headings:
Private Investigations-England-Fiction.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

***½ / 4



Last year I had asked Father Christmas for some badly needed bits of laboratory glassware – had even gone to the trouble or preparing an itemized list of flasks, beakers and graduated test tubes, which I had tucked carefully under my pillow and, by the Lord Harry! He had brought them!

Feely and Daffy didn’t believe in Father Christmas, which, I suppose, is precisely the reason he always brought them such dud gifts . . .Father Christmas, they had told me, again and again, was for children.

Did I believe her? I wasn’t sure. When I was able to get away on my own and think about it without tears springing to my eyes, I had applied my rather considerable deductive skills to the problem, and come to the conclusion that my sisters were lying. Someone, after all, had brought the glassware, hadn’t they?”

After further deliberation, Flavia de Luce decides that Father Christmas (i.e. Santa Claus) must exist, because no one else in the household could qualify as “the Bringer of Gifts”. Having cooked up a batch of birdlime in her home laboratory, Flavia believes that Father Christmas will be found stuck to a chimney pot on Buckshaw’s roof on Christmas Day, until she sets him free. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, the fourth novel in Alan Bradley’s “Flavia de Luce” series begins in the week before Christmas in post-war Britain. The household – Ophelia, Daphne, (Flavia’s two older sisters), Colonel de Luce, Dogger (the family ‘s faithful factotum), and Mrs. Mullet (housekeeper and the creator of culinary monstrosities) - is awaiting the “intrusion” which will provide the family with enough cash to stay in the house until the following year. Ilium Films has selected their family manor (Buckshaw) as the scene for the shooting of a movie, “one of those blasted country house things” popular in the British cinema of the late 1940’s. In return for their inconvenience, the de Luce family will receive a generous remuneration.

     Daffy and Feely are hugely impressed when they learn that the star of the film is Phyllis Wyvern, “the biggest film star in the world, . . . in the galaxy, . . . in the universe.” Phyllis has all the airs and glamour of movie queens of that era, and when she arrives at Buckshaw with her entourage, even Flavia (possessor of a razor-sharp, skeptical, and inquiring scientific mind) is captivated by the star’s undeniable magnetism. But, this is a Flavia de Luce mystery, and it’s not too long before things start to go awry. First, there’s an accident which sidelines Patrick McNulty, manager of Transport for Ilium Films. Then, Vicar Richardson convinces Miss Wyvern to be the starring attraction in an evening of scenes from Romeo and Juliet, to be held at Buckshaw, as a fund-raiser for St. Tancred’s parish. Readers of The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag will remember that the last St. Tancred’s fund-raiser was “something of a bust. . . .”, a puppet show which “had been brought to an abrupt end by tragedy and a woman scorned.” This performance of Romeo and Juliet has an unexpected interruption: when Juliet (Phyllis Wyvern) appears during the balcony scene, a stage hand misses a lighting cue. The show stops as Wyvern climbs down from the “balcony” and slaps him. Much later that evening, in hopes of incurring her sister’s extreme envy, Flavia decides to visit the film star for a late-night chat. She finds Phyllis Wyvern dead.

     Of course, Flavia throws herself into the investigation, assisting the local constabulary with her own acute observations and her true talent, her “chemical deductions.” And, as in previous de Luce Mysteries, there is more mystery than is immediately apparent; while Phyllis Wyvern’s age seemed indeterminate, there’s even more about her background which is puzzling. Despite (or perhaps, because of) its setting during December, the shortest month of the year, this is the darkest of the four books in Bradley’s series. There’s little chance of the reader’s guessing who killed Phyllis Wyvern, and even Flavia’s superb powers of logic fail to solve all of the mystery before the killer threatens to make her the next victim. But, the book ends on Christmas Day, and there is something of a happy ending to it.

     Readers of the previous three books in the de Luce series will enjoy this one as much as the others – there are familiar characters from the other novels, there is Bradley’s wonderful evocation of life in post-war England, and, of course, Flavia’s charm, wit, and brilliance. As with the other three books, Bradley skillfully fills in the background with details from previous novels while continuing to develop the current story. And, although the biographical note on the book jacket states that Bradley is working on the next Flavia de Luce mystery, this one had a strong sense of completion. Still, mysteries remain unsolved (what really happened to Harriet de Luce on that mountain in Tibet?). Fans of Flavia (and Flavia’s fans are more likely to be female, than not) will not be disappointed with this book, and those who aren’t yet, will become fans, especially if they go back to the beginning of the series and read the other three books.

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters, a retired high school teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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