In the event the title of this review isn’t enough of a warning for you, beware: lavish gushing dead ahead!
For a quiet mid-century English village, Bishop’s Lacey has a remarkable number of murders. Happily, they also have Flavia de Luce to solve their mysteries. Young Flavia; eleven year-old scion of a genteel family fallen on post-war hard times, budding chemist, poison aficionado, and smart-as-a-whip detective is, I think, destined for literary immortality. She’s both endearing and prickly—a combination I find irresistible in a character.
When she’s not too busy in her long-dead Uncle’s abandoned laboratory conducting chemistry experiments, plotting to poison one or both of her uppity big sisters, or flying around Bishop’s Lacey on a bicycle named Gladys, Flavia is poking her nose where all the adults, particularly the police, are quite sure it doesn’t belong. Her investigations land her in a spot of trouble now and again…okay, they frequently land her in dangerous situations, but our intrepid girl seldom needs much rescuing and even the local police detective has to admit the pint-sized Poirot is at least as smart as he is. Maybe smarter. She’s certainly smarter than her two sisters, who delight in tormenting Flavia in a variety of ways. Their chief tool of torture being the claim she’s not really their sister at all, but was adopted, a decision their parents soon regretted only to find the orphanage refused to take her back. (About now, if my two big sisters are reading this, they’re saying to themselves so that’s why she loves this Flavia creature so much! Because you see, I can relate, having been put through the identical torment myself as a child. I understand completely the equal parts disdain, fascination, affection, and anxiety that so thoroughly muddles her relationship with them. In another time and place I might have been Flavia. Although, I haven’t plotted to poison my sisters…lately.)
But hold on, you say, is there anything to commend these books outside of working through your childhood trauma and angst? Well, of course. Flavia and her sisters aren’t the only interesting, fully realized, quirky personalities inhabiting Bishop’s Lacey and its environs. A whole slew of characters—shady, colorful, and otherwise—populate the pages and make them come alive. Bishop’s Lacey feels like a real place, albeit with a weirdly high homicide rate. Bradley’s prose is direct and clean, baits and hints are doled out carefully without giving away too much, and every sentence moves the plot forward making for a quick-paced and easy read.
A Red Herring Without Mustard is the third book of a series. I recommend starting with the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but strictly speaking, it isn’t necessary. Mr. Bradley does a great job of providing enough backstory in the second and third novels without boring readers who are returning to Bishop’s Lacey to see what Flavia might be getting up to next. (I for one already have the 4th book, I’m just saving it for vacation reading next month.)