A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley – Review

Book Jacket:

Award-winning author Alan Bradley returns with another beguiling novel starring the insidiously clever and unflappable eleven-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce. The precocious chemist with a passion for poisons uncovers a fresh slew of misdeeds in the hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey—mysteries involving a missing tot, a fortune-teller, and a corpse in Flavia’s own backyard.

Flavia had asked the old Gypsy woman to tell her fortune, but never expected to stumble across the poor soul, bludgeoned in the wee hours in her own caravan. Was this an act of retribution by those convinced that the soothsayer had 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? Had it something to do with the weird sect who met at the river to practice their secret rites? While still pondering the possibilities, Flavia stumbles upon another corpse—that of a notorious layabout who had been caught prowling about the de Luce’s drawing room.

Pedaling Gladys, her faithful bicycle, across the countryside in search of clues to both crimes, Flavia uncovers some odd new twists. Most intriguing is her introduction to an elegant artist with a very special object in her possession—a portrait that sheds light on the biggest mystery of all: Who is Flavia?

As the red herrings pile up, Flavia must sort through clues fishy and foul to untangle dark deeds and dangerous secrets.

You can read an excerpt here.


Flavia is back in fine form, tackling the third mystery of her teenage career with as much verve and wit as ever. I’ll admit I didn’t think quite as highly of the second book in this series as I did the first, but this third installment is easily as good, if not better than, the book that made us all fall in love with Flavia in the first place (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie). At this point there can be no doubt of Bradley’s ability to craft an intriguing whodunit (and the plotting was as fascinating as ever), but here Bradley for the first time cracks open Flavia’s emotional development, and by allowing her to grow, by deepening her familial relations, he has created his richest story yet.

Flavia‘s voice has always been the heart and soul of this series, and it once again makes this story an absolute joy to read. Flavia is utterly authentic, from her hilarious inner musings, brilliantly odd and oddly brilliant, to her occasional bouts of temper, from her sass and genius for petty revenge to her twelve year old insecurities, Flavia is indomitable, immature, and utterly brilliant. It is Flavia‘s flaws, her razor sharp intelligence paired with the utter fallibility of a twelve year old girl, that create the alchemy of this series, and it is as potent as ever. The spark is still very much alive.

The setting of this series, the quaint and strange small town of Bishop’s Lacey, is as much a character as ever, and Bradley once again weaves an intriguing piece of history into his story – this time a primer on the strange religious movements that were so popular in Britain in the pre-modern age. I love how Bradley manages to organically unearth new stories from the history of his small town, and how Flavia’s furious peddling too and fro always seems to reveal a new corner of the town we’ve never noticed before. Bradley just nails the charm and creepiness of small town life, and it makes for the perfect, isolated setting for a murder or two.

The mystery is tight and well paced, with clues and red herrings aplenty, and never once did I get ahead of the story – but I particularly love how Bradley imbued this case with personal relevance for Flavia. From the key role played by the family silver to the ways in which this case forces Flavia to interact with her family (she even TALKS to Daffy of her own volition), Bradley has added a lovely personal layer to his mystery, and it brings this story alive. Even more so, Flavia’s growing awareness of herself and those around her is so perfectly pitched, so brilliantly rendered, that it will absolutely remind you of the moments in your own life when your childlike understanding of the world first began to falter. Flavia is starting to grow up, and her first stumbles towards making sense of her place in the world are so absolutely true, so utterly right, that it will hit you where you live. This book is the perfectly pitched first step towards a coming of age story, and I am very, very much looking forward to its continuance.

Flavia’s spunky sleuthing once again deserves top marks, but what I think is perhaps the most beguiling mystery of this series still remains to be solved – and that is the mystery of what happened to set Flavia and her sisters against each other. This book starts to change the rules, starts to deepen the familial ties, but that crucial question remains and it has me absolutely hooked.

A cracking good mystery, starring a teenage sleuth like no other – this book makes for a smart, witty, and intriguing read. And I for one plan on enjoying Flavia’s sleuthing for many years to come.

Byrt Grade: A

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

 Publishers Weekly (starred review) says:

In this marvelous blend of whimsy and mystery, Flavia manages to operate successfully in the adult world of crimes and passions while dodging the childhood pitfalls set by her sisters.

Kirkus Reviews says:

A splendid romp through 1950s England led by the world’s smartest and most incorrigible preteen.

Stacked Books says:

What makes these books truly entertaining is Flavia’s voice. She’s got a tremendous amount of character and it’s remarkable that Bradley, a grown man, is able to write her voice so convincingly. It helps that Flavia is very deliberately not your typical eleven year old. She’s resourceful, cheeky, intelligent beyond her years, and treats adults as her peers. She’s also frequently selfish, petulant, mean-spirited, and foolish. Despite all that (or perhaps because of these failings), she’s also always likable. As a reader, I never felt left behind by Flavia’s sleuthing nor did I find that I was miles ahead of her. She treats the reader as her confidant and makes numerous (often very amusing) asides that allow us to get into her head.