Monday, November 21, 2011
A Cozy Setting For a Nice Murder
The Flavias are fun because Flavia herself is quite the character, and because so many of the other denizens of Buckshaw and Bishop's Lacey are worthy of gracing the pages of a Dickens novel (oddly specific, but that's what they are - quintessentially English, somewhat one-dimensional (or is it 2d? In any case, flat) but oh so detailedly perfect in their roles. The setting is PG Wodehouse meets Agatha Christie meets... well really, meets Homer Priceian small town insularity. (And that's leaving out echoes of I don't know what in Flavia herself, who combines an agile mind and talent for sleuthing with the confused pre-teen perspective on life). And the mysteries are always well-crafted, if a little too... well, a little too mystery-ish for my taste.
#4 is a Christmas tale, I think actually a Christmas special, so it's a little shorter than usual, though still well crafted. The scope of the tale is smaller, with all the action taking place at Buckshaw (in a snowstorm) and within a few days (right before Christmas). On the other hand, the case of characters is entirely (well not entirely) new, as a film crew has taken up residence at Buckshaw. The variety is, I think, welcome, if only because too many murders in one small town might become ridiculous (though the film crew isn't all that different from Rupert Porson's traveling puppet show in #2). The shortness of the book means we get less of Flavia doing things besides solving the murder, or at least getting distracted while on the trail (less of Inspector Hewitt too, I think). And the mystery is solved a little too easily - I'd say before Flavia should have had a chance to put it all together (she figures it out by talking to enough people, but i think things fall into place a little too easily). But that's okay, it's a good enough mystery for me.
What's more important? Well I didn't love the ending - I think I remember thinking that the first book had too melodramatic a finish and Flavia's close brush with death continues here, I think just as implausibly. Though Flavia investigates real, live murders, she never seems to get involved enough for it to seem possible their sordid surroundings to touch her - and yet they do. It's almost an unevenness of tone... one that is evident in a few more places in the book. First of all, it never does become very clear who are the good guys and bad guys amongst the book's newcomers. I don't mean the killers, obviously they're bad guys (well ok, I guess sometimes the killers aren't bad guys, but they are this time). But everyone else... the victim, her maid, the set guy (don't know his title) the second-in-command set guy... they all seem mildly unpleasant, but we never really get their personalities resolved one way or the other. And, more severely, Flavia herself continues to exhibit a strange mix of vulnerability and cunning, cut to the core by her sisters' cruelty, yet utterly unmoved by some pretty scary stuff. That is, of course, Alan Bradley's intended portrait of Flavia - but it's a picture that doesn't always blend easily. These are all minor details though, overall I find myself quite carried along by the olde-English way of life and its various livers (wow that sounds funny - but it's the right word, it is :))
So what do I really want more out of this book? Well I want a full-length novel, because I believe AB can do better with 100 more pages or so. And I want someone to explain to me what in the universe is with the dL family anyway?! It just gets a little too weird sometimes, Harriet's presence and Father's distance, Daphne and Ophelia's harsh treatment and their very occasional lapses into human decency... oh, and why is Flavia never in school? I think it's high time we get some answers, but I don't know if we will any time soon (I should probably look that up, I bet he's answered that in an interview somewhere). And of course, let's get Flavia some romance! A few years in the future of course, she's immature even for an 11-year-old. Personally I'm rooting for Dieter to throw over Olivia and get together with our heroine, in the fullness of time... you never know :) And meanwhile, I'll keep reading for kicks.