Wednesday, February 22, 2012
I Am Half Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley
This is the fourth book in the retro mystery series staring Flavia de Luce. Set in post-War Britain, the de Luce family lives in a huge old family country estate, but without the resources to keep up with maintenance. The privations of mid-century Britain is bad enough, and the new taxes are beyond what the family can afford. The setting is not unlike the one in I Capture the Castle, as the old ways are now gone, and the family adjusts to the new order.
The formula of these books is a bit too evident in this fourth title of the series, and Bradley leans a bit too heavily on the props of Flavia's passion for chemistry and the sibling rivalry between Flavia and her two older sisters. We are treated to some (now stock) moroseness about the loss of Harriet, the girls' mother who disappeared ten years earlier on a trek to Tibet (if I recall correctly) and is now presumed dead, although the family remains stuck in their grief. Flavia struggles with an odd survivor's guilt, as she was too young when Harriet left to remember anything about her mother, and she worries that somehow it was her fault that Harriet left them.
Is it the production schedule for these books that has made this one so thin on character and the eccentric life that made the first books so charming? Once again, we are treated to an intrusion of show business. In Red Herring with Mustard, a van breaks down outside Bishop's Lacey, containing the stars and puppets of a popular (fictional) children's television show. This time, Mr. de Luce has leased the use of Buckshaw to a movie company who has arrived to film only a couple of days before Christmas. The star is an aging diva who manages to continue to play ingenue roles despite the chronological disparity--a bit of boondoggle we have to take on faith, as her talent and charisma are missing from the scenes we see with her.
In a virtual re-run of the previous book's plot, the cinema people are prevailed upon to put on a show to raise money for the run down church of Bishop's Lacey. This time, however, the performance is mounted at Buckshaw, and the villagers are trucked in by sledge. A horrible snow-storm strands everyone overnight, and of course the diva (one "Phyllis Wyvern") is found dead--strangled by a length of film and dressed in the costume she wore in that production.
Up to this point, many characters have been introduced and moved around, but no real motives or relationships have been advanced. Phyllis is nasty to her personal assistant/dresser, for no good reason, and inconsistently too. There is a vaguely Eastern European chauffer who doesn't have anything to do but smoke cigarettes and look vaguely threatening. There is a nasty business where Phyllis climbs a ladder to the scaffolding to slap a lighting man who failed to turn her spotlight on at the cue. Do these amount to motives for murder? Bradley doesn't make much of a case for them. Phyllis has a steady co-star, who has a famous profile and almost nothing to do in the book. She also only works with a single director, who has no particular interaction with her at all. There is an accident to an assistant director early on, which would have been a botched murder attempt in the hands of Agatha Christie, but doesn't have much pay off in this book.
Presumably Bradley intended to use the stranded villagers stuck at Buckshaw for something--perhaps possible perpetrators, or witnesses, or just to build psychological tension, but nothing emerges. The vicar and his wife set off to walk back to the village in order to hold Christmas services for those not snowed in at Buckshaw, but are brought back by a police officer to no purpose.
There is nothing approaching the kind of gleeful cruelty and cleverness of the first book, in which the sisters gang up on each other, and Flavia manages to pick a lock with the wires from her braces. Instead, there is a tedious set-up in which Flavia attempts to prove that Father Christmas is real, which involves her painting the chimneys of the house with bird-lime, in order to catch Father Christmas like Br'er Rabbit on the Tar Baby. There is another far-fetched scheme in which Flavia makes her own fireworks that are also set out on the roof of Buckshaw. Of course, the showdown with the murder happens on the snow-covered roof, and ends with a lightning strike setting off the fireworks, and one of the two conspirator/murders caught in the bird-lime. The other one (predictably) falls off the roof and breaks his neck. Flavia also falls off, but lands in a snow drift, because of course she does. There are sequels to write!
A classic murder mystery like this has two plot engines, which occupy the first part of the novel--figuring out who will be the victim, and who all the suspects will be and their potential motives. Bradley doesn't really accomplish either of these. Phyllis is the obvious victim, because she is the only non-recurring character who does anything at all to make her stand out from all the extras standing around for most of the book. No one really responds to her charm or her bitchiness, and it all seems like she is at the end of her career and they are all about to be rid of her anyway.
Once she is dead, there is an attempt to make the murder ghoulishly fascinating by having her dressed and made up like the character she played in the film that was used to strangle her. Why? How? When? Flavia examines the body and discovers that Phyllis has on an incongruous pair of heavy work boots underneath the fancy dress she was dressed in. Whose boots, and why would the murderers bother doing that? Why put make-up on the corpse after she was dead, and who had the skill to do that?
Basically, the mystery gets solved by fiat--the murderers come after Flavia on the rooftop, for no good reason that the reader can see, as she hasn't done anything that could have been interpreted as a threat to them. It turns out that the murderers are another actress, who is also as old as Phyllis, who is now working as a make-up artist on the set, I think? She was jealous because she wanted some role, and the director, Val Lampman supposedly promised it to her, but then had to give it to Phyllis, because she was actually his mother? But he couldn't tell his jealous girlfriend that, so instead he killed her years afterward? It doesn't make any sense why he would go along with it, why the murder needed two people to perform it, and there was no indication that either Flavia or the police were closing in on any particular suspect until they gave themselves away by chasing Flavia up onto the roof and--doing what? There was no plan--the former actress broke off some antenna once she was up there, and tried to poke Flavia--to kill her? To push her off the roof? Just because it was an annoying thing to do? Then once she was caught in the bird-lime, Val Lampman shows up and she screams "Prod her! Prod her!" which is not really scary at all, frankly. The chase is slow in the extreme, and the stakes just don't seem all that high. Flavia doesn't do anything particularly clever, and she ends up being found? saved? when lightning strikes the roof and sets off the fireworks she made.
I actually hope Bradley goes back and re-writes this one at some point--this series could have the kind of cultural impact that Nancy Drew had, but they can't be as slip-shod as this one. I'll keep reading the series, but not for long unless he takes the time to really do this as well as it deserves.