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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd

I wasn't that crazy about Alan Bradley's second Flavia de Luce mystery, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, so I have fallen out of touch with the character. But I couldn't resist the latest, the eighth in the series, with a title like Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd. That's a line spoken by the witches in MacBeth, and this mystery does involve both cats and a presumed witch.

This book finds Flavia back in England at her home, Buckshaw (apparently she spent time in boarding school in Canada). It's still post-war England--I don't know if she's aged commensurate with the release of the books--I don't think so--so she certainly does run into a lot of murders. That's the problem with amateur sleuths--who would be Jessica Fletcher's friend on Murder, She Wrote? She must have had hundreds who died.

Anyway, Flavia is delivering a message for a friend on her trusty bike, Gladys, when she finds the intended recipient, a reclusive woodcarver, dead. He's upside down, strapped to a door. Of course, Flavia doesn't run and call the police. She examines the room first. As she says, "How could I tell Clarence that finding another dead body was anything but dreadful?
On the contrary: It was thrilling; it was exciting; it was exhilarating, it was invigorating; to say nothing of electrifying and above all, satisfying. How could I tell the dear man that murder made me feel so gloriously alive?" She finds several first editions by a children's author named Oliver Inchbald (clearly based on A.A. Milne), who mysteriously died on island, pecked to death by seagulls.

Flavia, a chemist, manages to interview several subjects and gets to the bottom of things. We really have to suspend our disbelief that an adult would answer her questions. In her family life, her father is ill in the hospital, and she's frustrated that she can't get to visit him.

The main thrust of the book seems to be recounting the poor life of Christopher Robin Milne, the son of A.A. Milne who resented being put in his father's books. Here Inchbald has a son who tells Flavia how terrible his father was: "Oliver Inchbald had beaten Crispian Crumpet? That golden-haired little boy of the storybooks? My mind almost gagged at the idea as my brain cells drew back in horror."

The "who done it" is a bit of a let down, but does involve Flavia being attacked by someone wearing antlers. Most of the pleasure of these books is Flavia's personality and gift of metaphor and simile: A few: "Not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral, the office of The Daily Telegraph was in a part of the city flattened by the Blitz. Even after ten years, blackened bombsites still remained scattered round the church like rotting teeth in the mouth of some ancient duchess." Another: "Carla Sherrinford-Cameron, her hands clasped together at her waist like lobster’s claws, was singing “The Lass with the Delicate Air,” and I found myself wishing I had thought to bring a firearm with me—although whether to put Carla out of her misery or to do away with myself, I had not quite yet decided."

The Flavia de Luce novels are what are known as "cozies," like the Jane Marple books or that series where a cat solves mysteries. They don't usually involve guns. I tend to like my mysteries with a noir bite and some nihilism. But, for a cozy, these books are near the top of what is being written these days. Well done, Flavia!

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