ALAN BRADLEY, AUTHOR OF THE MOST AWARD-WINNING SERIES DEBUT OF ANY YEAR, RETURNS WITH ANOTHER IRRESISTIBLE FLAVIA DE LUCE NOVEL.
“[Alan] Bradley has created one of the most original, charming, devilishly creative and hilarious detectives of any age or any time.”—Bookreporter
It’s Christmastime, and Flavia de Luce—an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry—is tucked away in her laboratory, whipping up a concoction to ensnare Saint Nick. But she is soon distracted when a film crew arrives at Buckshaw, the de Luces’ decaying English estate, to shoot a movie starring the famed Phyllis Wyvern. Amid a raging blizzard, the entire village of Bishop’s Lacey gathers at Buckshaw to watch Wyvern perform, yet nobody is prepared for the evening’s shocking conclusion: a body found strangled to death with a length of film. But who among the assembled guests would stage such a chilling scene? As the storm worsens and the list of suspects grows, Flavia must ferret out a killer hidden in plain sight.
BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Alan Bradley's Speaking from Among the Bones.
“[Flavia is] the most intrepid and charming adolescent chemist/detective/busybody in all of rural, post–World War II England.”—The Seattle Times
“Quirky and delightful . . . Flavia is a classic literary character who manages to appeal to both young and old readers equally.”—Wichita Falls Times Record News
“Bradley’s plot twists and turns delightfully.”—Fort Worth Star-Telegram
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST MYSTERIES OF THE YEAR BY THE SEATTLE TIMES
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Tendrils of raw fog floated up from the ice like agonized spirits departing their bodies. The cold air was a hazy, writhing mist.
Up and down the long gallery I flew, the silver blades of my skates making the sad scraping sound of a butcher’s knife being sharpened energetically on stone. Beneath the icy surface, the intricately patterned parquet of the hardwood floor was still clearly visible— even though its colors were somewhat dulled by diffraction.
Overhead, the twelve dozen candles I had pinched from the butler’s pantry and stuffed into the ancient chandeliers flickered madly in the wind of my swift passage. Round and round the room I went— round and round and up and down. I drew in great lungfuls of the biting air, blowing it out again in little silver trumpets of condensation.
When at last I came skidding to a stop, chips of ice flew up in a breaking wave of tiny colored diamonds.
It had been easy enough to flood the portrait gallery: An India- rubber garden hose snaked in through an open window from the terrace and left running all night had done the trick— that, and the bitter cold which, for the past fortnight, had held the countryside in its freezing grip.
Since nobody ever came to the unheated east wing of Buckshaw anyway, no one would notice my improvised skating rink— not, at least, until springtime, when it melted. No one, perhaps, but my oil- painted ancestors, row upon row of them, who were at this moment glaring sourly down at me from their heavy frames in icy disapproval of what I had done.
I blew them a loud, echoing raspberry tart and pushed off again into the chill mist, now doubled over at the waist like a speed skater, my right arm digging at the air, my pigtails fl ying, my left hand tucked behind my back as casually as if I were out for a Sunday stroll in the country.
How lovely it would be, I thought, if some fashionable photographer such as Cecil Beaton should happen by with his camera to immortalize the moment.
“Carry on just as you were, dear girl,” he would say. “Pretend I’m not here.” And I would fl y again like the wind round the vastness of the ancient paneled portrait gallery, my passage frozen now and again by the pop of a discreet flashbulb.
Then, in a week or two, there I would be, in the pages of Country Life or The Illustrated London News, caught in mid- stride— frozen forever in a determined and forwardlooking slouch.
“Dazzling . . . delightful . . . de Luce,” the caption would read. “Eleven- year- old skater is poetry in motion.”
“Good lord!” Father would exclaim. “It’s Flavia!
“Ophelia! Daphne!” he would call, fl apping the page in the air like a paper fl ag, then glancing at it again, just to be sure. “Come quickly. It’s Flavia— your sister.”
At the thought of my sisters I let out a groan. Until then I hadn’t much been bothered by the cold, but now it gripped me with the sudden force of an Atlantic gale: the bitter, biting, paralyzing cold of a winter convoy— the cold of the grave.
I shivered from shoulders to toes and opened my eyes.
The hands of my brass alarm clock stood at a quarter past six.
Swinging my legs out of bed, I fi shed for my slippers with my toes, then, bundling myself in my bedding— sheets, quilt, and all— heaved out of bed and, hunched over like a corpulent cockroach, waddled towards the windows.
It was still dark outside, of course. At this time of year the sun wouldn’t be up for another two hours.
The bedrooms at Buckshaw were as vast as parade squares— cold, drafty spaces with distant walls and shadowy perimeters, and of them all, mine, in the far south corner of the east wing, was the most distant and the most desolate.
Because of a long and rancorous dispute between two of my ancestors, Antony and William de Luce, about the sportsmanship of certain military tactics during the Crimean War, they had divided Buckshaw into two camps by means of a black line painted across the middle of the foyer: a line which each of them had forbidden the other to cross. And so, for various reasons— some quite boring, others downright bizarre— at the time when other parts of the house were being renovated during the reign of King George V, the east wing had been left largely unheated and wholly abandoned.
The superb chemical laboratory built by his father for my great- uncle Tarquin, or “Tar,” de Luce had stood forgotten and neglected until I had discovered its treasures and made it my own. With the help of Uncle Tar’s meticulously detailed notebooks and a savage passion for chemistry that must have been born in my blood, I had managed to become quite good at rearranging what I liked to think of as the building blocks of the universe.
“Quite good?” a part of me is saying. “Merely ‘quite good’? Come off it, Flavia, old chum! You’re a bloody marvel, and you know it!”
Most chemists, whether they admit it or not, have a favorite corner of their craft in which they are forever tinkering, and mine is poisons.
While I could still become quite excited by recalling how I had dyed my sister Feely’s knickers a distinctive Malay yellow by boiling them in a solution of lead acetate, followed by a jolly good stewing in a solution of potassium chromate, what really made my heart leap up with joy was my ability to produce a makeshift but handy poison by scraping the vivid green verdigris from the copper float- ball of one of Buckshaw’s Victorian toilet tanks.
I bowed to myself in the looking glass, laughing aloud at the sight of the fat white slug-in-a-quilt that bowed back at me.
I leapt into my cold clothing, shrugging on at the last minute, on top of everything else, a baggy gray cardigan I had nicked from the bottom drawer of Father’s dresser. This lumpy monstrosity— swarming with khaki and maroon diamonds, like an overbaked rattlesnake— had been knitted for him the previous Christmas by his sister, Aunt Felicity
“Most thoughtful of you, Lissy,” Father had said, deftly dodging any outright praise of the ghastly garment itself. When I noticed in August that he still hadn’t worn the thing, I considered it fair game and it had, since the onset of cold weather, become my favorite.
The sweater didn’t fi t me, of course. Even with the sleeves rolled up I looked like a baggy monkey picking bananas. But to my way of thinking, at least in winter, woolly warmth trumps freezing fashion any day of the week.
I have always made it a point never to ask for clothing for Christmas. Since it’s a dead cert that you’ll get it anyway, why waste a wish?
Last year I had asked Father Christmas for some badly needed bits of laboratory glassware— had even gone to the trouble of preparing an itemized list of flasks, beakers, and graduated test tubes, which I tucked carefully under my pillow and, by the Lord Harry! he had brought them!
Feely and Daffy didn’t believe in Father Christmas, which, I suppose, is precisely the reason he always brought them such dud gifts: scented soap, generally, and dressing gowns and slipper sets that looked and felt as if they had been cut from Turkey carpet.
Father Christmas, they had told me, again and again, was for children.
“He’s no more than a cruel hoax perpetrated by parents who wish to shower gifts upon their icky offspring without having to actually touch them,” Daffy had insisted last year. “He’s a myth. Take my word for it. I am, after all, older than you, and I know about these things.”
Did I believe her? I wasn’t sure. When I was able to get away on my own and think about it without tears springing to my eyes, I had applied my rather considerable deductive skills to the problem, and come to the conclusion that my sisters were lying. Someone, after all, had brought the glassware, hadn’t they?
There were only five possible human candidates. My father, Colonel Haviland de Luce, was penniless, and was therefore out of the question, as was my mother, Harriet, who had died in a mountaineering accident when I was no more than a baby.
Dogger, who was Father’s general roustabout and jack- of- all- trades, simply hadn’t the resources of mind, body, or finances to lug round lavish gifts secretly by night in a drafty and decaying country house. Dogger had been a prisoner of war in the Far East, where he had suffered so awfully that his brain had remained connected to those horrors by an invisible elastic cord— a cord that was sometimes still given a jerk by cruel Fate, usually at the most inopportune moments.
“ ’E ’ad to eat rats!” Mrs. Mullet had told me, wide- eyed in the kitchen. “Rats, fancy! They ’ad to fry ’em!”
With everyone in the household disqualified for one reason or another as the Bringer of Gifts, that left only Father Christmas.
He would be coming again in less than a week and, in order to settle the question for once and for all, I had long ago laid plans to trap him.
Reading Group Guide
1. How does Alan Bradley use the closed world of the Buckshaw Manor as a varied and intricate setting for this novel? Think about how events take place in very specific locations within it—the Blue Bedroom, the library, the foyer, the drawing room, even one of the bathrooms. And what are we to think about what happens outside and on the roof?
2. Colonel de Luce and Dogger have a shared history and depend on each other immensely. Others, like Flavia and Dr. Darby, routinely rely on Dogger in crisis situations. Talk about Dogger as a character. What kind of role does he play at Buckshaw and for the various family members?
3. Phyllis Wyvern has many layers—and not only of makeup. What kind of a person is she? Did your opinion of her change over the course of the novel?
4. Discuss Flavia’s relationship with, and understanding of, her father. Is he the tragic, solitary figure of her imagination?
5. Despite the ill will felt between the de Luce sisters and their usual bickering, there are a few moments in this novel when there seems to be an actual bond of caring between them. Are Ophelia and Daphne softening in their opinion of Flavia?
6. On the one hand, Flavia praises her father’s stoic British manner, even holding off giving him a hug because “We de Luces do not gush.” On the other, she finds her laboratory the only escape from the “crushing burden of being a de Luce.” Discuss how Flavia and her family see themselves, compared to how others might see them.
7. Flavia has a lot of freedom for an eleven-year-old, and routinely risks death, whether in her chemistry lab or while tracking down murderers. Do you ever feel afraid for her; or just thrilled by her daring and achievements?
8. Alone in her thoughts as she wonders whether chemistry or Christmas legend will win out in her attempt to trap Saint Nick, Flavia tells us, “There were times when I felt as if I were standing astride a cold ocean—one foot in the New World and one foot in the Old. As they drifted relentlessly apart, I was in danger of being torn up the middle.” How could this comment apply to Flavia’s life, or to the world of Buckshaw?
9. As Flavia recounts the details of how the murder of Phyllis Wyvern was plotted, Inspector Hewitt dryly remarks, “Rather like an Agatha Christie.” In this novel, the whole film crew and half the village are trapped inside Buckshaw, as is so often the case in classic British drawing room mysteries. Talk about the characteristics of these sorts of novels, and how Alan Bradley uses (and also plays with) the form.
10. In a sense, Flavia lives in a childhood world of her own imagining. How do events like Dieter giving Ophelia a friendship ring affect that world?
11. This novel takes its title from the Alfred Tennyson poem, “The Lady of Shalott,” a part of which serves as an epigraph at the beginning. Read the entire poem and compare the tale told by Tennyson to the story that inhabits the pages of I Am Half-Sick of Shadows. Are there characters who share qualities with the Lady of Shalott?
12. Who is the most misunderstood character in I Am Half-Sick of Shadows?
13. As Alan Bradley has commented in interview, “Although each book is complete in itself, it’s important to understand that there’s a much longer story unfolding.” This is the fourth novel in the planned six-book series. How do the events and the character development in this book advance some of the series’ ongoing storylines?