Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Review 2011 #5 - Alan Bradley's I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows: Flavia De Luce Mystery 4 by Alan Bradley
Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: November 1st, 2011
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
Challenge: Mystery and Suspense 2011
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy
Christmas is coming to Buckshaw. Which means Santa and presents and a film crew. The De Luce's, ever in financial ruin, have rented the house out to a film crew so that they can afford such things as Christmas and food. Flavia, for the moment, is more concerned with the arrival of Santa, because with her cunningly devised experiment she will prove to her sisters once and for all that Santa is real! All that was needed was to whip up a little birdlime, which is a no-brainer to the chemically inclined Flavia. The arrival of the film crew does prove a fun distraction till the long awaited results of Christmas Eve, especially when the star of the film is revealed to be none other than Phyllis Wyvern, the most famous film actoress of the day. Phyllis brings along the requisite entourage of hangers on who make such good suspects, from the leading man to the disaffected lady's maid to the dictatorial director and the haughty costumes mistress. Throw in a blizzard, a bizarre accident to one of the films roustabouts and a charity performance for the church's roof with all the villager's of Bishop's Lacey descending on the house and you have the perfect setting for a nice cozy country house murder. Because, there will be a murder. And if there's one group of people who like to keep secrets, it's those in film who have spent their lives being other people and trying to hid what they really are.  And if there's one person who is good at uncovering secrets, it's Flavia De Luce.

The fourth installment of Bradley's Flavia De Luce stories is perhaps the best yet, despite my holding a great fondness in my heart for The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag with the Porson Puppet Show. The country house whodunit is a classic of the mystery genre, and while the previous installments have veered towards this style with the insular little community of Bishop's Lacey, it is nowhere near as perfect as a snow bound Buckshaw. Buckshaw with all it's hidden doors and snow topped heights and forbidden rooms is not just a perfect setting for a period film, but perfect for murderous intentions.

Each book has had their enigmatic stranger that becomes the focal point of Flavia's world, and Phyllis Wyvern is wonderful. An aging actress that still has the chops to pull off a teenage Juliet and capture the audiences devotion, even after she's slapped a lighting assistant who happens to be a local. An actress who nightly carries out her own version of Sunset Boulevard watching her old films and keeping everyone in the heated wing of the house awake till the wee hours. But far away in the unheated wing Flavia is not bothered by this and more fascinated by Phyllis's love of the macabre... having heard all about the Bonepenny incident and subscribing to all the murderous periodicals. I picture Phyllis as Gillian Anderson. She has the smallness of frame, the timeless beauty and with all that X-Files work, the macabre would suit her just fine. I in fact wonder if Alan felt the same because shortly after mentioning her appearance there are multiple references to Bleak House, which is what revitalized Gillian's career. Perhaps it was just felicitous, but I would love to see Buckshaw brought to the screen, and Gillian would be perfect.

What Bradley gives us more than a festive little cozy is a glimpse into a bygone age. A time when villages where villages, when great families could go back generations in a house but be unable to keep the roof up. Where vicars where there to bring everyone together, where films where a special occasion and where little girls could go about their way, even if their way was with dangerous chemicals and poisons and pipettes.

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