CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 24. . . .March 3, 2017
Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d. (A Flavia de Luce Mystery).
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 2016.
307 pp., hc. & ebook, $29.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-385-67841-4 (hc.), ISBN
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
The winter rain slashes at my face like icy razor blades, but I don’t care. I dig my chin deep into the collar of my mackintosh, put my head down, and push on against the buffeting of the furious wind.
I am cycling madly towards the village of Bishop’s Lacey, fleeing hordes of Hell’s hobgoblins.
The past twenty-four hours have been a nightmare. All I can think about it getting away from
As every traveler does on an Atlantic crossing, I had daydreamed about my return to England. Father, Feely, and Daffy would be at the docks to greet me, of course, and perhaps even Aunt Felicity would put in an appearance. Welcome Home Flavia banners would be waved, a few discreet balloons, and all that sort of thing. Discreet of course, because, like myself, none of us de Luces wear our hearts on our sleeves.
But when the ship berthed finally at Southampton, there had only been Dogger standing motionless in the rain beneath a dark umbrella. (Pp. 3-4)
The previous Flavia novel, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, ended with Flavia’s being sent home to England, having been banished from Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, the school of which her mother, Harriet, was a distinguished alumna. Although life in Toronto exposed Flavia to a very different environment from the manor house in which she had grown up, life at the Academy was not a happy experience. And now, it’s clear that she has not received the homecoming she expected. Dogger’s dark umbrella is a portent, and he is the bearer of very bad news. Flavia’s father, Colonel Haviland de Luce, is in hospital with pneumonia. Pneumonia can be serious for anyone at any time, but for a man whose mind, spirit and body have been weakened by time spent (with Dogger) in a World War II Japanese prison camp, it’s deadly serious. Dogger surmises that the Colonel contracted influenza on a train trip he took to London to deal with the long unpaid property taxation issues besieging Buckshaw and the flu became bacterial pneumonia. Keep in mind, too, that this story is set in post-war England; penicillin is still a wonder drug and antibiotics are almost an experimental treatment.
The hour and a half train ride from Southampton to the Doddingsley station is devoid of much conversation, and the long taxi ride to Buckshaw is equally quiet. Upon arrival, Flavia is greeted only by Mrs. Mullet, Buckshaw’s housekeeper and creator of ongoing culinary disasters. Flavia’s sisters, Daffy (Daphne) and Feely (Ophelia), and her odious cousin, Undine, are all in bed. With no one from her family to welcome her on her return, Flavia is reminded of her “late-night arrival at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy”. “Dark entrances... seemed to have become a regular part of... life” (p. 7) for her. Worse still is her discovery that her beloved pet hen, Esmeralda, has been sacrificed to make chicken broth, the only nourishment the Colonel has been able to stomach. Again, Dogger tells her the sad story, taking full responsibility for having dispatched Esmeralda in the most humane way possible.
Small wonder that Flavia wants to escape Buckshaw and family for a while, and that’s why she and Gladys, (her trusty bicycle) are heading for the local vicarage where tea and sympathy await her in the person of Cynthia Richardson, the vicar’s wife. “There are times when even family can be of no use: when talking to your own blood fails to have meaning.” (p. 20) Cynthia is suffering from a miserable cold, but she invites Flavia in and soon they’re sharing tea and companionship. Perhaps it’s the exhaustion inevitable with a bad cold, but suddenly, Cynthia bursts into tears. She’s overwhelmed at not being able to do all the chores which come with her unpaid job as the “church-mouse wife” of a country vicar. Flavia offers to help in whatever way she can, and Cynthia gives her a small task: ride to a nearby hamlet, Stowe Pontrefact, and deliver a letter to a wood-carver named Mr. Sambridge. The vicar has been attempting to get Mr. Sambridge to undertake restoration work on some medieval angels in St. Tancred’s, and Flavia jumps at the chance to get away from everything and everyone, even if it means a ride in a driving December rain.
Sambridge may be a wood-carver, but upon arrival at his home, Flavia is amazed at its disrepair. As no one responds to her sounding of the door-pull, she enters the cottage in which the tools of his trade and beautifully-carved works-in-progress fill the single large room of the main floor. When she calls out again and no one answers, she decides to leave Vicar Richardson’s letter of request on the workbench. But then, she sees a staircase, at the top of which is a closed door, and for Flavia, “a closed door is like a red rag to a bull. It cannot go unchallenged.” (p. 30) She pushes against it, finding a tidy bedroom, and, as the door swings closed behind her, a body. It is Mr. Sambridge, and he is hanging to the back of door, upside down, his shackled limbs splayed wide, like an “X”. Think of da Vinci’s illustration, Vitruvian Man, and you’ll have the picture.
As followers of the series know, all Flavia de Luce mysteries begin with a death, and, for Flavia, the discovery of a dead body is positively life-affirming. And, it seems that finding Mr. Sambridge is a timely discovery for her as she’s had a great deal on her plate, even for a 12-year-old of remarkable intelligence and aplomb. There’s been the discovery and retrieval of her mother’s body, followed by Harriet’s funeral, Flavia’s learning of her own membership in the super-secret community known as the Nide, and the astonishing news that, by the terms of Harriet’s will, Flavia is inheritor of Buckshaw. It’s been overwhelming, and difficult as it is for her to admit, “the feeling was one of bearing an enormous invisible burden: the weight of the world.” (p. 34) However, finding Mr. Sambridge galvanizes her – the change in her emotional state is as dramatic as a chemical reaction in her lab, and, suddenly, she’s back in sleuth mode.
Briefly interrupted by the appearance of a cat, she’s quick to take in salient details about the victim and the scene of the crime (murder is assumed). Although Mr. Sambridge had few books in his collection, he does have multiples of mint-condition volumes penned by a writer of well-known children’s books, Oliver Inchbald. Looking at a copy of Rainy Day Rhymes evokes no nostalgia in Flavia, but, as she pages through the book, she wonders why Sambridge would have owned this collection of children’s books, all of which are first editions and none of which bear any sort of inscription or marginalia. One copy, unlike the others, has obviously been read and worn, and it bears the name of one Carla Sherrinford-Cameron. Flavia knows Carla but, before querying her about the whereabouts of her book, Flavia is duty-bound to report the crime, first to Cynthia Richardson, and then, to the local police. After that, she plans to pay her long-anticipated visit to her ailing father. However, back at Buckshaw, Dogger informs her that the Colonel is in need of rest, and so, the visit is put off for the time being.
Angry and disappointed, Flavia retreats to her room and ruminates on the connection between Mr. Sambridge, the Oliver Inchbald books, and Carla Sherrinford-Cameron. “Why had Mr. Sambridge kept immaculate first editions of this nauseous drivel on his bedside table? And why was Carla Sherrinford-Cameron’s name inked into one of them? Had Carla killed the old wood-carver? It seemed unlikely, but stranger things had happened, as I knew all too well... Was there some hidden link between the girl and the owner of Thornfield Chase? Could he possibly be her grandfather?” (Pp. 67-68)
As luck or Fate would have it, Carla is featured to sing at an Advent concert in the village that very afternoon. Listening to Carla is painful: “Her voice hung shrill in the air like a shot partridge” (p. 71), and Flavia’s unconscious cracking of her knuckles puts a quick conclusion to the performance. Carla flees the scene of her musical crime, and Flavia finds her, sobbing in the churchyard. Flavia has to work hard to overcome Carla’s initial hostility, but she does win Carla’s confidence, and while the latter doesn’t exactly become Flavia’s new best friend, the conversation is a critical event in the story. Flavia learns that Carla’s Aunt Louisa not only knew Oliver Inchbald, but that “he had a mad purple pash for her – or so she said.” (p. 76) Louisa Congreve worked for Inchbald’s publisher, Lancelot Gath, and that gives Flavia a reason to take a trip to London. The trip to London also provides an opportunity for a visit with Mildred Bannerman, Flavia’s chemistry teacher at Miss Bodycote’s and someone who also left the school, accompanying Flavia on the trip back to England. Mildred provides Flavia not only with some background into the curious circumstances surrounding Inchbald’s death, but she also helps Flavia to focus her investigative efforts. And Flavia does seem to need her mentor’s assistance because, as she puzzles the mystery of Mr. Sambridge’s death, in this book, she is frequently beset by the feeling that she is somehow off her game and that the solution is evading her. When she finally does realize that Mr. Sambridge is, in fact, Oliver Inchbald, and that he had disappeared and staged his death, she is quite crestfallen.
Still, she has plenty of questions about his second, very real death. Why was Sambridge/Inchbald hanging on the door strapped to that wooden frame: “Had it been an accident? Had some unspeakable ritual gone suddenly and horribly wrong?” (p. 225) Who killed him? Well, I’m not going to be a spoiler, but I can tell you that Carla Sherrinford-Cameron has a starring role in the story’s resolution, and that she and Flavia meet again in St. Tancred’s churchyard, this time, in an encounter that is truly terrifying.
Of all of the Flavia books to date, I found this one to be the darkest. In the previous book, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, life at Miss Bodycote’s presented a dizzying array of new characters; this novel is very focussed on Flavia. While living in Toronto, Flavia found herself in a completely different environment and experienced great homesickness. Now that she’s back at Buckshaw, she is keenly aware that “while there’s no place like home”, home is no longer the place is once was for her.
Yes, there’s still that contentious and rivalrous relationship with her sisters, but even that lacks the spirit of the previous works. Colonel de Luce’s illness casts a deep, dark shadow on everyone, and there is a sense of pervasive sadness from which Flavia escapes at every possibly opportunity. Nothing is what it seems to be; early on, it’s clear that the main players in this mystery are living under assumed identities, and most readers will soon figure out, as Flavia does, to her chagrin, that she’s been deceived by plenty of appearances. As for that titular reference to Macbeth, a cat with the improbable name of Thomas More plays an important role in revealing long-hidden identities.
More than the last few books in the series, this is a book for a capable female reader in upper middle school or early high school years and beyond. Flavia is highly introspective and very much aware that her 12-year-old self is on the cusp of great life-change. When Mildred Bannerman reminds her that Flavia will be in “hot water” if she doesn’t make her train, Flavia comments that “there was really no hot water for [her] to get into... With [her] Father in hospital, no one gave a frying pan where [she] was, or what [she] was doing. Growing up is like that: the strings fall away and you’re left standing on your own.” (p. 119) And in the final pages of the book, when Flavia finally makes that long-overdue hospital visit, she realizes that now she is left to stand on her own.
What will happen to Flavia and to Buckshaw? I am hoping that Alan Bradley has another “Flavia” book in the works so that I, and Flavia’s other fans, will find out.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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