Saturday, December 24, 2016

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd, by Alan Bradley

Created by Alan Bradley, the charming post-war English sleuth Flavia de Luce keeps coming across murders. Only 11, she tends to ask different questions than "men in wrinkled suits with a whiff of handcuffs and the river about them."

This story takes place at Christmas. In London on a research mission, Flavia walks along Oxford Street indulging her imagination. Passing jostling shoppers whose faces are filled "with a kind of happy gloom," she half-expects to see Dante, or "even old Odysseus himself, trudging along the pavement with a gift-wrapped rocking horse on his shoulder."

Chemistry is one of many subjects that interest Flavia, and she's good at. Though she "preens" over her "chemical acuity," she's also aware that, in her "dowdy overcoat," she appears "more like a street musician than a first-rate chemical mind."

The youngest de Luce sister also has a philosophical bent which causes her to wonder, for instance, "How many murderers have been undone by a blurt?" Travelling on the train, she reflects that "Railway travel always makes you think of the past, as if this beast of steam and steel, which is carrying you forward into some unknown future, causes your memories to travel backwards, at an equal speed, in the other direction."

Though her judgments of others can be harsh, she finds room for forbearance, as for poor Carla, who "could not help it that she was nauseating: the kind of person who makes your pores snap shut and your gullet lower the drawbridge." Flavia understands what motivates others to lie, and can detect when a woman is using a false name, perhaps because she has "more than once... appended a parasitic Sabina" to her own name, "usually as a subtle warning shot to someone who has infringed" upon her dignity.

When questioning a witness, she aims for a manner that is "hard-boiled but friendly." However, she understands that it is unfair of her to question her friend Cynthia too closely, since "a vicar's wife hears things that would peel the paint off battleships."

Towards the end of her adventures, although the young detective is certain that she "had solved a crime," she dutifully gives Inspector Hewitt a full account of her discoveries. When she pedals off on Gladys, her bicycle, there's family business to take care of. More surprises are in store for this irresistibly charming character.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd is the latest Flavia de Luce book, but the one I read first. Now I must discover the Canadian connection. Why was she exiled from her English country house in Bishop's Lacey to attend Miss Bodycote's Female Academy in Toronto, and why was she evicted from the school and sent back? To find out, I must read As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust.

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