The first thing that Flavia de Luce, Alan Bradley’s 11-year-old sleuth, does in his latest mystery is set a gypsy fortune teller’s tent on fire. It gets worse from there, but this is a Flavia de Luce novel. So there’s a nasty bludgeoning followed by a gruesomely inventive murder and the discovery of yet another corpse, all on the de Luce property. We can count on the undaunted Flavia to get to the bottom of these crimes.
Because she’s an expert in poisons, which she sometimes uses to get non-lethal revenge on her mean sisters Ophelia and Daphne, Flavia solves her crimes through chemistry. The title may refer to the persistent and unexpected smell of fish around both crime scenes and persons of interest. But as Flavia knows, a fishy smell doesn’t necessarily mean fish. And let’s not forget the pair of fox andirons that belonged to Flavia’s long-dead Mum, Harriet. They seem heavy enough to smash in a skull or two.
A Red Herring Without Mustard is as hilarious, gripping and sad as the previous books in this enjoyable series. The comedy comes from a little girl pulling one over on a bunch of clueless grown-ups as she pretends to be as clueless as they are. It’s gripping because it’s a well-paced murder mystery, and it’s sad because Flavia’s family is so messed up. Her sisters truly, deeply, inexplicably hate her. Her father, as inurned in grief over his wife as ever, now has the extra burden of trying to keep up Buckshaw, the de Luce’s great pile of a house, and the acreage it sits on. It’s gotten to the point where he’s auctioning off the family silver—another detail the reader should keep in mind.
Bradley displays his usual insight into Flavia’s character, though I’ve always suspected the books are from the point of view of an old lady recalling an unusually interesting childhood, like Mattie in True Grit. Bradley’s also good with his minor characters, a colorful bunch that includes Dogger, the shell-shocked factotum; Mrs. Mullet, the de Luces’ voluble, no-nonsense cook; and Inspector Hewitt, the stoic detective who’ll never admit how much Flavia helps his cases. A Red Herring Without Mustard introduces the deeply troubled Bull family and Porcelain, the unstable granddaughter of the fortuneteller. The requisite, well, red herrings, are numerous enough to keep the reader guessing. Once again, Bradley succeeds. And so, of course, does Flavia.