Review | I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley

Christmas, Flavia de Luce and movies are three of my favourite things. In I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley even adds a dash of Romeo and Juliet, and as anyone who’s ever seen my dog-eared, heavily annotated The Norton Shakespeare can attest, I am a sucker for anything Shakespeare. So it’s no wonder I’ve not only had Shadows on my wish list since having finished A Red Herring without Mustard, but I also begged (please, please, please, if at all possible!) Random House Canada for an ARC. Turns out they did have a single ARC left. It has a coffee mug stain on the cover, which is likely from an absent-minded editor, but which I prefer to imagine as the mark of a fellow Flavia fan who, however reluctantly, handed over her copy to make this blogger’s day. So, dear Santa, to whom I promised 20 years of being a good girl, I now hereby promise to make that vow last at least till Christmas. To my neighbours, I apologize for having busted your eardrums when I opened the package from Random House. Finally, to dear, dear Lindsey from Random House, I owe you a big, squishy hug. Thank you!

If you’ve never read a Flavia book, and you’re a fan of Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie and M.C. Beaton, stop reading my blog right now and go treat yourself to any of Flavia’s delightful adventures. Red Herring, for example, is about gypsies, and just came out in paperback. If, like me, you’re an avid Flavia fan, great news — Shadows is the best one yet!

Granted, I may be biased. As I mentioned, Shadows combines many elements practically guaranteed to make me devour a book. If ever a mystery were tailor-made for me, Shadows is it. That being said, even if you’re a Flavia-loving Ebenezer Scrooge, I think you’ll still enjoy this holiday tale.

Shadows begins with Flavia determined to solve the greatest mystery of all time: who is St. Nick? How does he get down chimneys? If, as her sisters Daffy and Feely claim, he doesn’t exist, where do the presents come from? In true Flavia fashion, she sets an elaborate trap, using chemistry, to capture Santa. This may sound like at best an amusing subplot, but Bradley incorporates Flavia’s trap into the main mystery. I love that he managed to make even this seemingly random plot thread significant.

Due to financial problems, Flavia’s father rents the family estate Buckshaw to a film company over the holidays. One of the actors is murdered on a night when practically the entire village is stranded at Buckshaw during a snowstorm. Shadows is the most Agatha Christie-like of Bradley’s mysteries, featuring a classic country house whodunnit where even Flavia’s Aunt Felicity may have had a motive for murder. The mystery itself is an intellectual puzzle, with wonderfully placed clues and red herrings. It’s not quite as complex as an actual Christie, but I can definitely imagine Poirot himself scratching his egg-shaped head over it.

[Nerdy aside: This Flavia title is from Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” as is the title of Christie’s Miss Marple novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. I love this subtle nod to Christie, and I also love all the literary references Bradley sprinkles throughout his novels!]

In amateur detective novels, the professional detective character is usually bumbling and arrogant, so I appreciate that Bradley’s Inspector Hewitt is pretty sharp. In Shadows, he and Flavia arrive at the same conclusion through different sets of clues, with Flavia every now and then pointing out a minor but significant detail that he or his officers happened to miss. I love that their relationship is mutually beneficial, even affectionate, rather than adversarial. “What a dear man he was, the Inspector!” Flavia enthuses. Indeed, when the Inspector calls Flavia out on a lie and looks “pained” rather than annoyed, he almost seems more father than mentor.

Even more heartwarming are Flavia’s relationships with her family members, and the holiday setting is perfect for exploring these relationships more in depth. ‘Tis the season, even, for sisterly truces, however brief. I was especially touched by the part about Flavia trying to connect with her stamp-collecting father by telling him about the chemical properties of postage stamps. I even enjoyed the Feely romance subplot, and I don’t usually care for romance in mysteries. I love that two of Feely’s three suitors were a boy who always gives her stale chocolates “lightly frosted with a mold” and an American soldier always “ready to boogie-woogie.” Like Flavia, however, I was Team Dieter all the way, because Dieter is a booklover and intellectual, whose appearance is “disconcerting: It was somewhat like having the god Thor deliver the furniture in person.”

My favourite part has to be Flavia’s parents’ well-loved copy of Romeo and Juliet. With the initials of Colonel de Luce and Harriet inscribed on the title page, the book is an arresting image that reveals a bit of who Harriet was, a glimpse welcome both to Flavia and to us. The scene where Flavia’s father reads from the book literally gave me goosebumps and almost moved me to tears.

Shadows is a wonderful, delightful book. It features Bradley’s signature mix of colourful characters, mysterious puzzles and heartwarming character relationships. Above all, it treats us to another adventure of the always lovable, brilliant Flavia de Luce. To comfort a family friend with PTSD, she offers the following whimsical, scientific, profound observation:

Just think, Dogger, of all those atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, joining hands and dancing ring-around-a-rosy to form a six-sided snowflake. Sometimes they form around a particle of dust […] and because of it the form is misshapen. Hunchbacked snowflakes. Fancy that!

I love that image of hunchbacked snowflakes. And I love Flavia. I cannot thank Random House Canada enough for this early Christmas present. Next up, Flavia fans, is Seeds of Antiquity. The title alone gets me all excited. Also, heads up for all Flavia fans: there’s a Flavia de Luce fan club! In the meantime, here’s the Canadian book trailer for I Am Half-Sick of Shadows to help get you in the mood for a Flavia Christmas:

And just because we can never get enough Flavia, here’s the US trailer as well:

A Red Herring without Mustard, Alan Bradley #50BookPledge

I am a major Flavia de Luce fan. She’s an 11 year old Nancy Drew meets Sherlock Holmes with a Sheldon Cooper-esque IQ, solving mysteries in an Agatha Christie/Caroline Graham world. She boils tea in a Bunsen burner, uses science to play pranks on her older sisters, and misses her mother, who died when Flavia was too young to remember anything about her. Charming, precocious, and vulnerable, Flavia is probably the most endearing heroine I’ve encountered in contemporary fiction.

So I come into Red Herring without Mustard as a fan, and am thrilled to see at the end of the book that there is a Flavia de Luce fan club! The book begins with Flavia accidentally setting fire to a Gypsy’s tent and inviting the Gypsy to park her caravan on Flavia’s family’s land. As any mystery fan knows, it’s never a good idea to accept an invitation from an amateur detective, and (SPOILER ALERT!) sure enough, the Gypsy is murdered.

The mystery itself is a good, solid, convoluted tale. I didn’t find it as interesting as Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (The Weed that Strings a Hangman’s Bag is still on my To-Read list), but it’s still a good mystery that kept me guessing. Still, you don’t necessarily read a Flavia de Luce tale for the myriad twists and turns of the plot. A Flavia de Luce tale is a lark, a fun, charming read where you fall in love with Bishop’s Lacey and the characters who live in it. And what a lark this tale is! Without giving too much away, I just have to say, I love Flavia’s mirror trick. Pure genius.

Flavia also comes up with some gems of wisdom that I, as a lifelong mystery buff, just want to highlight and quote to others over and over again. One insight in particular just blew me away: “I’ve recently come to the conclusion that the nursery rhyme riddle is the most basic form of the detective story. It’s a mystery stripped of all but the essential facts.”  Wow. Yes, absolutely yes. The Flavia de Luce stories are an homage to this notion (Bradley’s titles are very nursery rhyme-like), and an homage as well to Agatha Christie, with so many of her mysteries referring to nursery rhymes (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Hickory Dickory Dock, A Pocket Full of Rye, “Four and Twenty Blackbirds”). I’m a lifelong mystery buff, and a major Agatha Christie fan, and so this just made me fall even more in love with the Flavia de Luce series.

Bradley also gives us a beautiful look at Flavia’s vulnerability in Red Herring. Flavia finds out a bit more about her mother, and we see how much Flavia wishes she had known her mother, and how much Flavia wishes she could be confident in her mother’s love for her. Flavia is so intelligent that it’s sometimes easy to forget she’s still a child, and Red Herring reminds us of this in subtle, heartbreaking, beautifully written scenes.

Loveable character, wonderful book, amazing series. Someone told me recently that the only negative thing she can say about the Flavia de Luce series is that there aren’t enough books in it. So to that customer and any other fellow Flavia fans, here’s some good news: according to his author biography, Alan Bradley’s already working on the next Flavia de Luce mystery. Any chance of a book tour with a Toronto stop, Mr. Bradley?