I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley (2011)
Flavia de Luce, the eleven-year-old expert on poisons and occasional observer of corpses, is back for her fourth outing in Alan Bradley's latest mystery. The time is still 1951 (I believe --the author does not specify this time) and Flavia is still being tormented by her older sisters, which is the least of her problems. In addition to doubts about her place in her family, Flavia is beginning to doubt the existence of Father Christmas. Also, as one guest at Buckshaw, the family estate, is about to give birth, Flavia is also beginning to realize that her knowledge of sex and the creation of life is almost nil. Being a very practical girl, she decides that learning about the birds and the bees can be put off for another time. Far more importantly -- since it is just days until Christmas -- she decides to embark on her greatest scientific experiment yet: proving or disproving the exist\ence of Father Christmas. She is going to set a trap for the old man and hold him captive.
While this is going on, Flavia's father, unable to pay his bills and on the verge of losing Buckshaw, decides to rent out the estate to a film company looking for a location to shoot a movie. And what a movie! Phyllis Wyvern, the biggest name in cinema, will be the star! Soon after the film crew arrives with all their quirks and egos, it becomes apparent that Phyllis Wyvern, imperious and demanding, has the largest ego of all. Despite this, she graciously assents to the local vicar's request to stage a fund-raiser for the repair of the church roof by acting out a scene from Romeo and Juliet for the locals. On the night of the fund-raiser, with half the village present at Buckshaw, a violent blizzard strands them and knocks out the telephone service. The fund-raiser itself was a smashing success (with only one jarring incident to mar the performance) and the star immediately retired to her room for the night. While the villagers were asleep wherever they could find a spot to lay down, Phyllis Wyvern was murdered -- strangled in her room with a length of celluloid film. Flavia, of course, finds the body.
I enjoyed this book possibly more than the first three in the series despite several flaws in plotting. A fuller picture of Flavia is presented here. Not only is she a likable snoop with a mania for poisons and chemistry, for the first time she really seems to be an eleven -year-old girl. Her doubts about Father Christmas and her logical attempts to dislodge them show us that, despite her genius, Flavia is just a little girl. Her observations remain spot-on even if some of her conclusions are not. Flavia de Luce is one of the most refrreshing characters to appear in recent crime fiction. The series is part Jane Austen, part Conan Doyle, part Agatha Christie, and part Dorothy L. Sayers. There a few better ways to spend time than to curl up with a good book. And Alan Bradley, through Flavia de Luce, has been bringing us some very good books.