Cozy mysteries are a great solace during troubling times, which makes me wonder why I’ve bothered to read anything else since 2017. I started reading the Flavia de Luce series at the end of 2020 and finally got around to picking it back up a few weeks ago. (Thanks, ‘Murica!)
For those unfamiliar with the series, it stars an 11-year-old girl named Flavia de Luce who is an aspiring chemist and amateur detective. No doubt she would take offense to both the “aspiring” and “amateur” descriptions. To be fair, she is a whiz at chemistry, and she has helped solve several crimes in her small town before the age of 12. (The quaint village of Bishop’s Lacey has seen more murders than Chicago at this point, but that’s typical of cozy mysteries.) Flavia lives with her older sisters Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy) and her father Colonel de Luce. Harriet’s mother, something of an adventurer, disappeared while mountaineering in Tibet when Flavia was very young and is presumed dead.
As I mentioned in my review of the first three novels, the mysteries are often less interesting than the characters and the family dynamics. Not only does Flavia have a love-hate relationship with her sisters, who constantly torment her by claiming she was adopted, but her father is cold and distant. For one thing, he’s a British Army man; for another, he’s locked in grief over Harriet. As Flavia ponders in I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, “It sometimes seemed that my sisters and I were no more to him than ever-present reminders of what he had lost. To Father we were, as Daffy had once said, ‘a three-headed Hydra, each one of our faces a misty mirror of his past.’ ”
The family is also plagued by money problems. Although they live in a rambling mansion called Buckshaw, the place is falling into disrepair. The property belonged to Harriet, who left no will, and Colonel de Luce has been fighting off creditors with limited success, which sets up the plot for I Am Half-Sick of Shadows.
Desperate to bring in money for the estate, the Colonel agrees to rent out Buckshaw as a setting for a big-budget film starring illustrious actress Phyllis Wyvern. If the idea of a film crew taking over your English estate for weeks in return for payment doesn’t shock you, then you are obviously not a 1950s-era retired British Colonel! Clearly, these are desperate times for the de Luce family. When a snow storm isolates the film crew and half the population of Bishop’s Lacey at Buckshaw, the stage is set for a classic locked-room mystery. And wouldn’t you know, the “wonderful” Miss Wyvern is soon found dead in her room, a strip of celluloid around her throat.
Of all the mysteries in the series so far, this one seems like the biggest throw-away. For one thing, a famous actress is murdered and nobody seems to care very much. Nobody is shocked. Nobody is even upset. When Flavia tries to share the juicy bit of gossip with one of her sisters, the response is along the lines of, “Oh yeah, old news.” The police come in because it’s their job, but even they seem to be going through the motions. Did I miss the part where Flavia found clues pointing to certain suspects? It seemed to me we went from “somebody’s dead” to “somebody is trying to throw Flavia off a roof” without the required intermediate steps. The story takes place around Christmas-time, so maybe I Am Half Sick of Shadows is the equivalent of the TV sitcom Christmas special: It’s a nice distraction, but you can skip it without losing the thread of the overarching story. (3 stars for this one)
I was expecting much the same when I started reading Speaking From Among the Bones, so I was delighted to find, instead, that this one is a top-notch mystery (4 stars)! In this novel, we’ve jumped from Christmas to Easter. While Feely is practicing to perform an organ solo at their church’s Easter Sunday service, the Vicar is overseeing a team of workers who are opening the tomb of their patron saint, Saint Tancred. Disinterring bones at the start of a mystery? You know it’s gonna be good! When the handsome Church organist Mr. Collicut disappears, it’s easy to guess whose body is eventually going to be found. Never fear, there’s much more to this story than one dead organist.
In addition, the story of the de Luce family progresses meaningfully. As the threat of losing Buckshaw becomes more tangible, the tender moments between family members become more frequent. Flavia gets not one, but two compliments from Feely in this novel. And her father’s admission that Flavia is essentially a mini Harriet is practically blubbering for a man whose upper lip is downright arthritic.
When I read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, I wasn’t sure whether I liked Flavia. Precocious children become brats so easily in fiction, and Flavia teeters long that line. But goodness, I love this girl’s cheek. Perhaps her best line in the series so far is to a new acquaintance: “Please don’t condescend to me, Mr. Sowerby, I’m not a child. Well, actually–strictly speaking, and in the eyes of the law–I suppose I am a child, but still, I resent being treated like one.” Beneath her sass, though, is a kind-hearted individual: one who won’t hurt Mrs. Mullett’s feelings by telling her how awful her cooking is, or who attends to Dogger during his “episodes” with the care of a nurse, or who hero-worships Inspector Hewitt and his wife Antigone, even as she is flouting the Inspector’s instructions. She never laments her fate of having a father who finds it difficult to show affection; rather, she embraces the person he is. “Dear Father!” she observes. “Even the most tender of his moments was a parade-square lecture. How I loved him.”
I’ve become more invested in the series with this latest installment and need to get back to the library to pick up the next few tout de suite. And not only because Speaking from Among the Bones ended with a cliffhanger.