Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hipster vs. Vintage Book Reviews: A Red Herring Without Mustard and Behold, Here's Poison

Within the past week I read two mysteries, Alan Bradley’s A Red Herring Without Mustard and Georgette Heyer’s Behold, Here’s Poison. Both of them were enjoyable, but very different. In fact, they really provided such a contrast in approach that I thought I’d review them together, because I think the comparisons say a lot about the individual authors’ styles.

I read Red Herring first. I’ve been waiting for it since I finished the second installment in the series The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, and it arrived on my Kindle the day it was released. Chemistry genius cum sleuth Flavia de Luce is thirteen now, still dueling wits with her (increasingly vile) sisters and trying to figure out her aloof father. Flavia’s first-person narration makes the series, frankly. She’s impetuous, sassy, and shrewd. But she’s also a child, so she doesn’t always completely understand the complex motives of the people around her. And she’s a bit sad and lonely, motherless because of her adventurous mother’s death when she was a baby. It makes for an oddly sympathetic combination – you just wish you could hug her, and tell her it’s going to be alright, but you know she’d blanch at the idea!

This time, Flavia is out to solve two crimes that she guesses are related: the beating of a gypsy who Flavia had invited to stay on a remote piece of the family estate, Buckshaw, and a the murder of local “tough” Brookie Harewood, whose body was artfully placed in the arms of Poseidon in a Buckshaw fountain. In the process she has to navigate a secretive sect of religious dissenters, the Hobblers, a ferocious London gypsy girl, and the estate’s arcane water system.

Red Herring is a mystery with lots of style. Because it’s part of a series, the characters are evolving in interesting ways, as Flavia begins to understand them more clearly. We are starting to see, for example, how very much Flavia’s father loves his family – and how very desperate he is to hold on to the family estate, which is at risk because of the onerous death duties owed to the government after his wife’s untimely death. Flavia’s sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, are evolving too, but in far less sympathetic fashion – in fact, I thought their evil was a bit “cartoonish” in this book. Inspector Hewitt’s fondness and respect for Flavia is growing, but so is his worry that she may be putting herself in danger. But the mystery itself in this one wasn’t so fantastic, I’m afraid. The chemistry tie-in was really weak, and the revelation of the murderer was anticlimactic. As for the title, I still don’t quite understand to what it alludes – unless it’s the fact that there are far more red herrings than actual clues to help the reader figure out the mystery. But it is a great title, isn’t it?

I followed up with my first book for My Reader’s Block’s Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. Georgette Heyer was not a name at all familiar to me – in fact, many of the female names on the list were unfamiliar – so I signed up for The Golden Girls Challenge, decided to read at least 5 different authors, and started investigating.

Behold, Here’s Poison is a classic, country estate mystery. It’s so 1930s – everyone dressed for dinner, speaking wittily, loathing each other with class. The Matthews family, run by their tyrannical Uncle Gregory, is not at all unhappy when he winds up dead – except for the fact that it appears one of them must have done it. Oily Randall Matthews, Gregory’s heir, seems a likely murderer – but he has an air-tight alibi. Mrs. Zoe Matthews and Miss Harriett Matthews both hoped to inherit his house, and have something of their own, finally. Mrs. Matthews’ children, Guy and Stella, are tired of having their uncle derail their life decisions. Did they kill him? There are other family members, and even neighbors, with axes to grind. The cast of characters is extensive, and the formality of address – Miss Matthews, Mrs. Matthews, Mr. Matthews –had me re-reading at the beginning to make sure I knew who was who, but the characters had such well developed personalities that the confusion didn’t last for long. In fact, the only character I found kind of dull was Inspector Hannasyde, the Scotland Yard detective in charge of the investigation. His personality hardly develops at all, but maybe that’s just as well, as it lets the suspects shine.

The mystery is the key thing in this book. It’s so darn clever. The clues were there, but I really didn’t see it coming, which is what I love in a mystery. It’s clear that Heyer did her research – the murder weapon is a surprise, very unique and devious. So I’d say this mystery is all about substance. The dialog is good, the characters are well-drawn, but in the end it’s the crime you remember, not what surrounds it. It was a great find.

Both of these mysteries were 4 star reads, for completely different reasons. Neither was a 5 star, though, because neither delivered the complete package: style and substance. Both authors are obviously capable of it though, and I’m anxious to read more from both authors. Thanks to Bev at My Reader’s Block for hosting!


  1. Terrific reviews! Georgette Heyer is one of my later finds. And I was very glad that I did. I've now read most of hers, but still have a couple to look forward to. Glad you enjoyed her!

    I've go you updated on the progess site.

  2. I don't read alot of mysteries, but the Georgette Heyer one has really piqued my interest. I love your description of the setting and the way the people speak and act :)
    And you do have me curious about the murder weapon...

  3. Bev -- Thanks for hosting this challenge. I've already started my first Dorothy Sayer book, and I already love it. I'm trying to read all different authors, since so many were new to me. And I'm including a Hercule Poirot I haven't read yet.

    TheBookGirl -- The murder weapon is a great twist. If you have time, definitely check it out.

  4. I love vintage mysteries, and Heyer is a particular favorite of mine though I prefer her historical novels to her contemporary ones. I also HATE the cover for this edition of the book- it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot and kind of creeps me out...

  5. Aarti -- Funny you mentioned that! I was wondering if they took a graphic from a classic advertisement, as there's no "flapper" in the book -- and certainly no masked ball. I agree, totally weird, and not indicative of the storyline. But I did love my first Heyer mystery.

  6. I'm glad you enjoyed Red Herring. I'm more and more convinced that the "mystery" of Bradley's novels isn't what is really important which is why they aren't necessarily spectacular. Because the real mystery is things being revealed little by little about the de Luce family, about Harriet, etc. I agree with you that we are learning much more about the characters with each novel. This one, for me, was more about showing the sadness and tragedy that hangs over the family while at the same time beginning to reveal that there are tender sides to the various characters that were not as fleshed out in the previous novels. I find myself barely caring about the mystery Flavia is trying to solve, because these books are so much more about this family. I cannot wait to see what Bradley has up his sleeve for the next one, I am Half-Sick of Shadows (taken from Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott").

  7. Thanks, Carl. Funny, but I have been wondering if the murder -- or is it the disappearance -- that Flavia will ultimately solve is her mother's. And I wonder if there isn't a clue in that painting! I agree that the father is so much more likeable in this book, that there has to be some remedy at some point. I'm waiting for Half-Sick Shadows myself!

  8. You would think at some point that Flavia would indeed dig deeper into the disappearance of her mother. It would be wonderful if the series ultimately ended that way. I was commenting on someone else's review yesterday that I hope the series doesn't get too tragic before it is all over. I thought we were shown the loneliness and heartache of Flavia more in this story and that coupled with their financial problems, etc. made the story really a good way. It gave the story some weight, some depth. But I would hate to see it all get too heavy before it is all said and done.

  9. Carl, I couldn't agree more. A bit of depth is great -- I'd lose interest if it got maudlin!

  10. I have the Flavia book on the shelf, but keep saving it for the perfect moment :) The Heyer sounds interesting, I want to read one of her mysteries for the same challenge.

  11. Ifyoucanreadthis -- you have more self-restraint than I did :-)


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