Among mystery fans, the misadventures of Flavia de Luce, child prodigy and detective, have quickly risen to the heights of “When is the next book coming out?” The cheeky youngest daughter of a once wealthy English widower, left to ramble about his decaying manor house mourning the loss of his wife, lives by choice in the creaking East Wing of Buckshaw Manor, apart from the rest of the household. Her two older sisters, Daphne and Chloe, delight in tormenting her with doubts about her parentage, and poke unkind fun at her preoccupation with chemistry and penchant for poisons. Flavia, in turn, cooks up fiendish inventions of her own to get even.
"I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS is a delightful holiday gift idea for Flavia fans, or for those who should be."
The setting is the former grand estate towering above a small village in post-World War II England. Here, life goes on much as it had for decades before the Great War that forever changed the societal structure of the rest of England. The de Luce family estate resides in the name of Flavia’s mother, Harriett, who died without a will in a skiing accident when Flavia was an infant. With no way to access his late wife’s vast fortune, Father and his three daughters struggle to maintain their former lifestyle, including a dwindling but loyal staff, as if nothing had changed. Quietly and gradually, Father is selling off heirlooms as their living conditions decline.
Christmas approaches, and the sheriff has declared that if the back taxes remain unpaid, the family will lose everything. How Dickensian --- and fitting, given the romanticism of the two eldest sisters who spend their days in the lavish library, noses in the Brontes, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare. Daphne firmly believes that “Books are like oxygen to a deep-sea diver…take them away and you might as well begin counting the bubbles.”
Father has been reduced to agreeing to rent out the estate to a British film company as a setting for a movie, starring one of England’s most famous actresses. Christmas, for the de Luces, has been cancelled, and all hands are on board as the stars and their entourages, lorries loaded with sets and equipment, and technicians arrive in a snowstorm.
The storm steadily develops into a blinding blizzard, ensnaring the huge crowd at the manse while Flavia and her sisters bask in the dazzle of theater. Suddenly, one of the main characters in the movie is found murdered in one of the upper bedrooms. It would not be a Flavia de Luce mystery if Flavia herself didn’t trip over a dead body --- and our young genius sets out to solve the crime, frustrating the efforts of the local constabulary.
If this sounds a bit inane, let me assure you that in the hands of any less a writer than Alan Bradley, it could turn out that way. But Bradley has created one of the most original, charming, devilishly creative and hilarious detectives of any age or any time. Narrated in first person, Flavia’s observations run merrily throughout the book. Her eldest sister, Ophelia (“Feely” to family), has suitors falling at her feet. Remember, this is shortly after the war, so it’s not just the local boys, but decommissioned soldiers from other countries who have chosen to stay in England to seek out the beautiful Ophelia. One, an American GI, presents her with a beautifully wrapped Christmas gift. Flavia thinks to herself, “I could tell that Feely was torn between centuries of good breeding and the urge to rip into the gift like a lion into a Christian.” The present was of a very American GI sort, a pair of nylons, recognized by Daphne as “scarce as unicorn droppings --- the Holy Grail of gift giving.” Father, however, remembered them as war-time barter for female favors, so he grabs them from Feely’s hands. To the horror of all, he flings them dramatically into the fire.
As the disastrous Christmas weekend plays out to its tumultuous end, the wonderfully drawn characters, including the reluctant hero, Dogger, play their parts with the usual British stiff upper lip. I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS is a delightful holiday gift idea for Flavia fans, or for those who should be.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on November 3, 2011