In this, the eighth book in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, Flavia is back in England following her adventures at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, which are described in the previous novel As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. If you haven’t yet met Flavia I would recommend starting at the beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; it’s not essential, as this one does stand alone as a murder mystery, but I think you’ll get more out of it if you already know Flavia and understand her family background.
At the beginning of Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Alan Bradley’s books always have great titles), twelve-year-old Flavia returns to Buckshaw, the de Luce ancestral home, hoping for a warm welcome. Instead, the household feels strangely subdued and quiet. The reason for this becomes clear when Flavia learns that her father is seriously ill in hospital. Desperate to go and see him immediately, she is disappointed to be told that Father needs to rest and her visit will have to wait until the next day. The thought of staying in the house with her two unpleasant sisters Feely and Daffy and her annoying little cousin Undine is unbearable, so Flavia hops on to Gladys, her trusty bicycle, and goes out for a ride.
Calling at the home of her friend, the vicar’s wife, Flavia agrees to take a message to Roger Sambridge, an elderly woodcarver. Finding Roger’s door unlocked, she enters the house – only to discover the body of the woodcarver hanging upside down behind the bedroom door. Apart from a cat, there’s no sign that anyone else has been inside the room. It seems that Flavia has stumbled upon another mystery to solve…
This book is definitely an improvement on the previous one; I hadn’t really liked Flavia being taken out of her usual environment, so I was pleased to have her back at Buckshaw, riding Gladys and conducting experiments in her beloved chemistry laboratory. I was disappointed, though, that we didn’t see her interacting more with the other members of the de Luce household. Before she left for school in Canada at the end of the sixth book, there seemed to be hints that her relationships with Feely and Daffy (Ophelia and Daphne, in case you’re wondering) could be about to turn a corner, but in this book they barely speak to each other. I was also surprised that the Nide, the secret society which played a part in the plots of the last two novels, was only referred to once or twice – not that I’m complaining as I wasn’t very keen on that particular plot development anyway.
Although Flavia has only aged by a year or two since the beginning of the series, she does feel more mature now and is more daring in the methods of investigation she chooses to use. However, she is still only twelve and I found it unconvincing that she would really have been able to do some of the things she does in the novel (such as posing as a biographer in a meeting with a publisher). On the other hand, Flavia has always been unusual for her age, which is part of the charm of these books. I did enjoy watching her solve the crime and although I guessed one or two of the twists, I didn’t guess everything.
This is, I think, the second Flavia novel to be set at Christmas, but unlike the other one (I Am Half-Sick of Shadows), it doesn’t have a very festive atmosphere – which is understandable, with Father so ill in hospital. The last page of the book wasn’t really what I was expecting and I am now looking forward to reading the next one, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, to see what Alan Bradley has in store next for Flavia and her family.
I am counting this book towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery)