Delacorte Press, 352 pages, $26
How old was Flavia de Luce in “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,” the first book in the wonderful series begun in 2009 by Alan Bradley? Eleven? Now she’s twelve. That’s a lot of living for Flavia in the course of one or two years, because “Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d” is the eighth book.
The title comes from the incantation uttered by Shakespeare’s wicked witches in Macbeth, more famous for the line, “Double, double toil and trouble.” There is indeed a cat in the book whose part is merely a walk-on but essential. There is a purported witch in the book. And that is where the similarity to Macbeth ends.
Flavia de Luce has a penchant, remarkable for a twelve-year-old, for discovering corpses. She has a scientific, investigative mind, so the times when she stumbles across a dead body are occasions for celebration. Discreetly, of course. It is not that Flavia is without compassion, but her eccentrically framed mind needs a challenge to keep ticking. And to keep her mind off her family’s troubles.
It is the 1950s. The setting is the Buckshaw estate, near Bishop’s Lacey, England. Flavia has returned from the wilds of Canada, having been tossed from the boarding school to which she was packed off. Her return has provoked no welcoming arms or cheery hallos. Instead, she returns to snippy, silent older sisters, a bothersome younger cousin now in residence, and a father hospitalized with pneumonia. Only Dogger, the estate’s manager/general dogsbody and resident mysterious personage, has some kind words and time for Flavia, but even he is stressed and gloomier than usual.
Luckily, a corpse appears. In the course of running an errand to the home of Roger Sambridge, an arthritic woodcarver, Flavia discovers the poor man hung upside-down on his bedroom door. Dead as a doornail. Instead of screaming or running to find the nearest phone to call the police, Flavia examines the room for clues of the man’s death. Was he the sacrifice in a strange witchy ritual? As she finally exits the house to find a phone, she notices the curtains twitch in the house across the street. That will bear investigation later.
While perusing Sambridge’s effects, Flavia comes across books by children’s author Oliver Inchbald. What is an old man doing with these children’s books? Did Sambridge have something to do with Inchbald’s death several years ago? As Flavia digs further into the two mysterious deaths, she calls on old friends to help her, Mrs. Bannerman. She was one of Flavia’s teachers in Canada She turned out to be a murderer and a member of the secret society of Nide, the organization Flavia’s mother was assisting when she died. (I know, that seems terribly complicated, doesn’t it?) Also, the strong and warming presence of Cynthia Richardson, the vicar’s wife, and the steadfast, intelligent one of Inspector Hewitt do not let her down.
Flavia is twelve and she essentially sees the world through a twelve-year-old’s eyes. She has determination and heart, but also a need to mean something to somebody. With a father broken by the horrors of an internment camp in World War II, the death of his wife, and the mounting bills for running Buckshaw, Flavia must mostly determine her own course.
This is a lovely series. Flavia is prickly, lonely, stubborn, inventive, surprising, and vulnerable. She is an unusual heroine for adult readers to embrace, but it turns out that we are here for her in droves.