January 26, 2012

BOOKS: I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley (2011)

Fourth in the Flavia de Luce series.

Our setting is Buckshaw, a somewhat rundown British country estate in the years after WWII, where Colonel de Luce lives with his three daughters. The youngest is 11-year-old Flavia, a budding chemist (with a particular interest in poisons) who finds herself caught up in the many murders that plague the small village of Bishop's Lacey.

In this one, it's Christmas 1950, and the Colonel hopes to stave off the tax collector for a few months by renting out Buckshaw to a film crew, among whom is the legendary actress Phyllis Wyvern. There is, of course, a murder -- strangulation with a piece of film -- and a locked-house element this time around, as nearly the entire village is snowed in at Buckshaw.

As is typical for this series, the mystery itself is pleasantly entertaining. I continue to wish, though, that Flavia were a few years older; even by the standards of literary precocious children, she's a bit hard to believe as an 11-year-old. (And Bradley blunders, I think, in the other direction on an issue of age this time, with a subplot about Flavia setting out to prove whether or not Father Christmas really does come down the chimney on Christmas Eve. Surely an 11-year-old is too old to still believe in Father Christmas, especially an 11-year-old who is as passionately devoted to reason and critical thinking as Flavia is.)

What makes the series work is style and atmosphere: the slowly fading genteel aristocracy of the de Luce family, the comic relief of the servants, the Christie-esque coziness of the setting. There's nothing in this volume that would be confusing to a series newcomer, so you needn't feel that you have to start at the beginning.

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