Alan Bradley’s I Am Half Sick of Shadows


St. Trinian’s meets cozy English Country House, with a soupcon of Holiday Cheer.

This is the fourth in the Flavia de Luce series, set in small-town post-war England. Flavia, a twisted precocious child with a penchant for chemistry and mayhem, lives in Buckshaw, a crumbling Great House near the town of Bishop’s Lacey, England with her father, distrustful of all modern appliances, two horrid older sisters (who turn out not so bad in this novel), a cook, and a general handyman with shell shock. In this installment, it’s a proper Good King Wenceslas Christmas season, complete with pristine snowbanks scattered about and a vicar who’s conducting a capital campaign to reroof the village church. Colonel de Luce, plagued by IRS agents after the death duties on the family estate ensuing from his wife’s death ten years earlier, has agreed to allow movie filming to take place in the house. Flavia is keeping busy alternating between concocting a batch of quicklime to spread upon the chimneypot in order to capture Father Christmas and assembling municipal grade fireworks to set off Christmas Eve for the amusement of the nearby villagers.

Things begin to go awry on Christmas Eve when what passes for a blizzard in the south of England sweeps through Bishop’s Lacey just as the villagers have assembled in Buckshaw for a performance of selections from Romeo and Juliet, by the leading man and lady of the film being made there. Needless to say, the audience, comprising most of the village, is stuck in the manor over night…along with a murderer and a murder victim. Flavia finds leading lady Phyllis Wyvern dead in her bedroom, strangled by a strand of filmstrip as she watched a private showing of her past triumphs. Flavia gets on the case right away, with the assistance of Dogger, the handyman and valet.

This was a fun quick read, but as with the other mystery series I’ve read with a distinct hook, I can see this also rapidly becoming merely formulaic, even if Flavia is allowed to grow and develop. As a mystery, it falls decidedly flat; most of the book is taken up by Flavia’s sardonic descriptions of and conversations with the family members and villagers, leaving only a comparatively skeletal mystery with a not terribly convincing solution. Fun, but not terribly mysterious. I’m not sure why the head of the local police force didn’t just lock Flavia in her room, to keep her from contaminating the crime scene yet again, and get on himself with the investigation.

Another possible irritant is that Flavia doesn’t come across as terribly childlike, despite her belief in Santa Claus, but rather like Eloise as a tween, and like Eloise, Flavia strikes me as not so much a precocious child but an adult’s take on said brilliant warped child. I wouldn’t mind reading more, but only if I can take her as St. Trinian’s was intended: a parody of a heroine from all those ghastly self-improvement tracts thinly veiled as children’s fiction, or the only slightly better Enid Blyton or Angela Brazil novels.

Oddly, the book reminded me of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events in that Flavia resembles the Baudelaire children in their self reliance and cleverness in inventing things, though they lack her dubious intentions as to the end use of her experiments.

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