A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley
Eleven-year old Flavia de Luce is the sort of detective Nancy Drew should have been.* Flavia lives a large and run-down estate in a small village with her preoccupied father and her two torturous older sisters. Flavia has three main interests: chemistry, poison, and revenge -- the revenge part to be taken out on her sisters. To further all three of her interests, she has a rather elaborate chemistry lab in the East (unused) Wing of the mansion. Murder is not a major interest but sometimes she is drawn to it like a fly to honey.
A Red Herring Without Mustard is the third in this award-winning series set in 1949 England. It starts when Flavia accidently burns down a fortune-teller's tent at the church fete. Because the fortune-teller, an old gypsy woman, inhaled a lot of smoke, Flavia volunteers to drive her wagon to a secluded part of the estate where she could camp. Gypsies had camped there in the past until Flavia's father had kicked them off the property. On the way, Flavia learns that the old woman had been accused of stealing a local baby some years earlier.
Later that night, Flavia sneaks out to visit the old woman and discovers her lying a pool of blood, barely alive. Flavia takes the gypsy's horse and rides to fetch a doctor, likely saving the woman's life. The next day she meets the woman's granddaughter, Porcelain Lee -- a girl just a few years older than Flavia. Porcelain is dirty and hungry, so Flavia invites her to the manor house, knowing that her father would object and hoping to sneak her in. On the way they come across the body of a local poacher, tied high on a large statue of Poseidon that an ancient relative of Flavia's had placed on the estate. The poacher had a long lobster fork, part of the de Luce family silver, impaled up his nostril.
Soon the whole mess is embroiled with an old religeous cult, a ring of antique counterfeiters, and the discovery of the missing baby's body. Flavia attempts to use her wiles and her almost-encyclopediac knowledge of chemistry to solve the mystery while avoiding her father, her sisters, and Inspector Hewitt, the policeman who had led the two previous investigations in which Flavia was involved.
Flavia has the brains of a genius, the heart of a con artist, and the emotional judgment of an eleven-year old. This combination has made her one of the most-beloved characters in recent mystery fiction. This book, as well as the earlier The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, are recommended.
* No knocks against Nancy, whom my younger daughter used to call "a turnip-brained fathead" after trying to read one of her books, but Flavia is brave where Nancy is plucky. Flavia is outspoken where Nancy is wimpy. And independent-Flavia is a far better role model for young girls than establishment-Nancy.
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