Review: Alan Bradley – A Red Herring Without Mustard

Last summer, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Flavia de Luce, child sleuth and chemistry enthusiast. As the first two detective adventures were so much fun and I’m sure by now that with Flavia you can’t go wrong, I dove into our heroine’s third case.

by Alan Bradley

Published by: Doubleday, 2011
ISBN: 0440339863
ebook: 391 pages
Series: Flavia de Luce #3

My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: “You frighten me,” the Gypsy said. “Never have I seen my crystal ball so filled with darkness.”

In the hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey, the insidiously clever and unflappable eleven-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce had asked a Gypsy woman to tell her fortune—never expecting to later stumble across the poor soul, bludgeoned almost to death in the wee hours in her own caravan. Was this an act of retribution by those convinced that the soothsayer abducted a local child years ago? Certainly Flavia understands the bliss of settling scores; revenge is a delightful pastime when one has two odious older sisters. But how could this crime be connected to the missing baby? As the red herrings pile up, Flavia must sort through clues fishy and foul to untangle dark deeds and dangerous secrets.


Here comes a heroine who manages, with the first one-and-a-half pages, to burn down a gypsy’s caravan wagon after being told her fortune. While one may call Flavia de Luce a bit clumsy at times, she is everything but stupid. Her passion for chemistry is unsurpassed and ever since the events of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, she has dabbled in crime-solving. Quite successfully, at that.

Narrating her third adventure, Flavia captured my attention as easily as ever, and didn’t let go until I was finished with the book. This is quite a feat, considering that I wasn’t very impressed with the mystery. Flavia’s voice was enough to keep me interested, her family situation and some dark secrets I’m sure are looming in her past, are engaging enough. Beneath the cold English surface, we get further glimpses of Flavia’s inner turmoil. She covers it well with humor and cynicism but we can tell that she does suffer from never having known her mother, from her family’s cold demeanour, and from her sisters’ cruel japes.

red herring

The first two books in the series each had a theme surrounding the murder case(s). First it was stamps, then it was puppetry, this time it is… fish? Not really. Gypsies, telling the future, crystal balls? Also not quite. Not being a big reader of crime fiction, I sorely missed that overlying theme that taught me new tidbits and gave me an insight into a world otherwise new to me. We get clues to follow from the start, ostentatiously all over the place, seemingly unconnected. Of coures, I was relying on Flavia to help me figure everything out but in the end, the solution wasn’t very satisfying and the clues felt too scattered for me to make up my mind. Then again, maybe I’m still just terrible at guessing.

All things considered, this is a gem of a series, no matter whether each murder case happens to be up my alley or not. Alan Bradley has shown three times now that he is a great writer and highly talented in depicting highly intelligent, young girls who like to spend their free time helping out the local police. What on earth would they do without Flavia de Luce?

THE GOOD: Flavia is as charming and funny as ever, her narration is funny and engaging and she makes for a wonderfully precocious protagonist.
THE BAD: The clues were a bit too loosely tied to each other for my taste. I would have liked a theme connecting them, like in the first two books (stamps, puppetry).
THE VERDICT: For Flavia fans, this is another recommendation. So far, it was my least favorite of the series, at least as far as the mystery goes. But that doesn’t change the fact that these books are beautifully written and very engaging, quick reads.

RATING: 6,5/10  Very good, with some reservations

dividerThe Flavia de Luce series:

  1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  2. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
  3. A Red Herring Without Mustard
  4. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
  5. Speaking From Among the Bones
  6. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

One thought on “Review: Alan Bradley – A Red Herring Without Mustard

  1. Carl V. says:

    Barring the first I think this was my favorite of the series thus far, in large part because I think it built on the overaching mystery which is what happened to her mother and what secrets are we not being told. I also thought we caught more glimpses of humanity in the family, in small morsels. And there was more Gladys in this one, which always thrills me. I just read the latest over Christmas and it is a nice ever so slight departure from form in that this one is even less focused on the mystery du jour and is more about celebrating an old fashioned Christmas and about revealing things about Flavia’s relations.

    Really looking forward to the new one coming out soon.


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