Saturday, February 04, 2012
I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS by Alan Bradley (2011) Doubleday Canada, 271 pages
Intrepid, precocious pre-adolescent chemist and sleuth Flavia de Luce returns in this caper set on her crumbling family estate, Buckshaw. In this title lifted from Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," Bradley places his protagonist in the shadows of her own home when her father rents out the property to a film crew intent on shooting "another one of those blasted country house things" in order to make ends meet for the next patch.
Peopled with familiar characters from previous books including Dogger, Col. de Luce's faithful batman from the war, and Mrs. Mullett, the cook who can't really cook, the amiable Vicar and the spectre of Flavia's mother, Harriet, slipping between the pages of the next Alan Bradley mystery feels like a visit home for the holidays, spent in the company of folks who know you the best and love you in spite of your flaws.
When the crew from Ilium Films arrives with its star Phyllis Wyvern in tow, "her complexion like cream in a summer kitchen," Flavia's older sisters Daffy and Feely are gobsmacked to be in the presence of such a luminous film idol.
When the jack-of-all-tradesman Mr. McNulty is injured on site, the production begins to unravel. A snowstorm means unexpected guests are forced to batten down at Buckshaw and tempers flare. "Bun" Keats, Phyllis Wyvern's personal assistant, takes to bed from the stress of it all, migraine-bound, and Ms. Wyvern herself keeps others awake through the night as she watches over and over again one of her hit films, until, of course, she no longer can. Flavia discovers their famous guest, dead as a doornail, choked with a swath of celluloid tied around her neck in a decorous bow from the very film that continues to "Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap!...like a black bullwhip, flapping round and round."
Who killed Phyllis Wyvern and why becomes the delicious mystery that Flavia helps the inspector to solve this time.
Bradley's affection for his protagonist is clear. Only once or twice did Flavia's precocity make my smacking hand itch, but it certainly didn't deter me from enjoying the ride alongside her.