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A Red Herring Without Mustard

October 19, 2011

Tired of Flavia de Luce after Alan Bradley’s second novel about her (The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag), I’d pretty much decided I’d had enough of the series. And then Avid Reader told me the third novel, A Red Herring Without Mustard, was much better, so I went to find it at the library and spent a pleasant-enough hour or so with Flavia as she grows out of some of her childish self-absorption.

I thought Avid Reader’s review was promising me some revelation of more of the secrets about Flavia’s dead mother Harriet, but she continues to be the mysterious ghost of the manor-house, everybody fighting over her memory the way they fight over her decorative andirons (“fire-dogs,” as Flavia calls them).

Evidence of Flavia growing up is subtle and mildly amusing in places, like when she meets another young girl whose mother has died and has the sense to realize that “the grief in the room belonged” to that other girl and “it would be selfish to rob her of it in any way.” Often it seems that a way to commiserate with someone else is to tell the story of when you were in a similar situation, but a grown-up person should be able to realize (even too late, as I sometimes do) that some situations are specifically anguishing, and sharing will diminish and even trivialize them. I think of the character in the play The Laramie Project who says “I’m supposed to discuss my personal relationship with the Lord, standing there with my pop and chips?”

Flavia does have some interesting ideas:
“Thinking and prayer are much the same thing anyway, when you stop to think about it—if that makes any sense. Prayer goes up and thought comes down—or so it seems. As far as I can tell, that’s the only difference.”

Eventually, Flavia solves some of the mystery by using her interest in chemistry to figure out what’s causing a fishy smell, but not without a joke about there being “something fishy here.” She rambles about the countryside on her bike, Gladys, and shows signs of becoming prematurely dotty as she talks to the bike:
“At the corner of the garden, I turned, and mouthed the words, ‘Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,’ and Gladys signaled that she wouldn’t.”
Rather than charming, I inevitably find Flavia’s eccentricity wearying in its preciousness.

This book was indeed a little better than the previous one, but I think my delight in the first one, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, was largely based on surprise, and that will never be recaptured. It’s like laughing at a child’s knock-knock joke. You can do it, but the laughter gets progressively more forced with each repetition.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2011 9:04 am

    Huh. I did like Sweetness and hadn’t even realized there was a second. Maybe I’ll go read both.

  2. October 19, 2011 9:09 am

    Wait – you’re now advertising Johnny Carinos? How apt!

    I’m working on the Anne of Green Gables series and suspect that nothing will quite recapture the first for me.

    • October 19, 2011 9:27 am

      You know, I do like knock-knock jokes, and am pleased to laugh at them, especially during a good Italian dinner. But I wouldn’t want to have to repeat the experience every single night.

  3. October 19, 2011 9:32 am

    *frowny face* Tsk. I read Avid Reader’s review too, and thought I might give this a try (having reacted to the first and second much the way you did.) Now I am wondering whether an hour or two is too much to waste on Flavia. Dear me, how trying these little decisions are.

    • October 19, 2011 5:02 pm

      Yes, they are trying. That is exactly the tone of my complaint. It’s not a big complaint. More like “This plum is too ripe” from The Fantastiks.

  4. Jenny permalink
    October 19, 2011 11:45 am

    I had this reaction to the *first* one, so I wasn’t especially eager to read the rest of them. (My kids are at knock-knock joke ages. Well, rather, one is, and the other is younger, so he imitates his sister but makes surrealist nonsense knock-knock jokes, which is truly execrable after the fourth time or so.)

    • October 19, 2011 5:03 pm

      I don’t know if there would be any more appeal for a mother of younger children–there might; I sometimes liked to get a child’s-eye view of things, and said that was one of the pleasures of reading the first one in this series.

  5. October 19, 2011 1:25 pm

    I totally know what you mean! I fell in love with the first book because Flavia was such a delight. But then I started wavering on the second one, and I haven’t even sought out this third one. Now I hear a fourth is coming out soon.

    • October 19, 2011 5:05 pm

      If someone dropped the fourth on my doorstep, I’d read it. (This does occasionally happen, that books are dropped on my doorstep. I have a friend who will sometimes leave me a bag full!)

  6. trapunto permalink
    October 19, 2011 1:49 pm

    I like it that you translate “andirons.” When I was a Flavia-aged reader (and beyond) both terms confused me. I thought andirons might be a sort of set of double pokers you used together like chopsticks to rearrange the burning logs, and I imagined fire-dogs as decorative iron Fu-dogs people commonly kept on their hearths in olden days.

    • October 19, 2011 5:07 pm

      Ha! I think a lot of readers have similar confusion, especially about implements of the hearth. We don’t use all those things anymore, but a lot of them still exist, especially around big, old fireplaces in Europe.

  7. October 19, 2011 2:48 pm

    Sorry this one didn’t work for you and I hate that my review misled you. I wasn’t disappointed in the 2nd book, so I think that we were probably already on different pages for this series. I enjoy Flavia, but I definitely see how she could become tiresome.

    • October 19, 2011 5:10 pm

      I really didn’t feel misled, except possibly about how much is revealed about Harriet–I just keep wanting more from these books. I feel the author is being a bit coy, trying to draw the backstory out for whatever length of series he imagines. I did say it was a pleasurable hour!
      See, this is why I try to forget who leads me to read something. I made the choice.

      • October 20, 2011 10:39 am

        I completely understand that feeling. I hate it when it seems like an author is streching a series just to get more books out of it. I felt like I got to know Harriet a little better with the whole painting thing, but I see what you mean. I’m never offended if someone doesn’t like a book I liked. That’s the beauty of reading! Some things work for some people and not for others. Reading is such a deeply personal experience.

  8. October 20, 2011 5:09 am

    I liked the first one, although I didn’t love it, but didn’t much care for the second. I can’t see myself really picking up the third. Also, I wish someone would do an analysis on the phenomenon of older men writing younger, female sleuths for mystery series. 😉 Would Flavia be less compelling as a boy? One of my big issues with the second one was that I just didn’t completely buy any of the female characters; I have several favourite male authors who I think write wonderful women, even female narrators, but for me Bradley’s not in that category.

    • October 20, 2011 7:38 am

      I think Flavia would be less compelling as a boy–for one thing, her interest in chemistry wouldn’t seem quite so unusual to all of the other characters. Already her sisters kind of relate to her as brothers would–they don’t talk a lot, they just jump on her and play practical jokes.

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