Although I had planned to spare you all another Flavia deLuce novel review, I felt moved to write about this one (the fourth in the series) not because I liked it better than the others, but because it uses an interesting device and I wanted to talk about it. This is Bradley’s Christmas book, and he chooses to bring a huge number of characters (a film crew and half the town) to the deLuce family home (a dilapidated country estate called Buckshaw) and then traps them there with a massive snowstorm that knocks out phone lines and makes roads and even footpaths impassable. Murder, of course, ensues, and the whole story is played out, not just on the property, but within the manor itself.
I don’t think this idea appeals to me strictly because I was sick for over a week and “trapped” in my own small home, although I certainly could empathize with the frustration of these people after having been together for a few days. No, I actually have a very bad novel I wrote in 2010 that is proof that this particular device has been on my mind much longer than this ridiculous cold has been sitting in my chest. I have tried to salvage that novel many a time, and whenever I pull it out to see what I can make of it, I discover that writing a compelling story where the characters are limited to one small space is incredibly difficult. The tiniest action affects every person – even a slight alteration in mood is enough to throw a wrench in the best laid plans. I imagine anyone who has undertaken a days or weeks-long car trip can attest to this. There is just something inherently stressful about shoving people into a small space; it’s ridiculous to assume they will behave as they always do under those circumstances.
When I was reading I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, I kept being reminded of the movie “Clue.” It was a film I both loved and hated as a child because even though it was a comedy, it did an excellent job creating dramatic tension. What made that story ultimately more successful than this book, for me, was that it limited the cast of characters. There were enough suspects to keep the audience guessing, and to create a number of meaningful interactions between different parties, but not so many that it felt like a block party. Bradley’s mistake was in introducing too many people into what should have been a tightly constrained scenario, even though the reader and Flavia, as our eyes and ears on the ground, as it were, know that Bradley isn’t one for sacrificing his villagers. We may not like all of them, but the chance of one of them committing a brutal murder is low…which is great, if you happen to live in Bishop’s Lacey and want some reassurance that you won’t be killed by the minister’s wife or the pot-boy at the pub. It’s slightly less great if you’re assembling a group of suspects and want to build tension to its breaking point.
Having so many extra characters hanging around dilutes that essential uneasiness Bradley manages after the murders in his earlier novels. The story itself is still charming, but the element of suspense gets lost with all those completely non-shifty people wandering around. I found that disappointing because this setting was so different from the earlier books; normally, Flavia spends as little time as possible at home. Her energy, completely believable in a ten-year old detective, takes her all over the countryside on her bicycle, and Bradley has proven again and again that he’s capable of making even a bus stop seem creepy when the girl is on her own. On her adventures, it’s easy to forget that she’s a child, right up until the moment when she’s put into a position where a small girl’s physical strength is a massive disadvantage. It’s that balance of Flavia’s ultra-capability with the more realistic consequences of investigating gory crimes that makes these books so enjoyable. Once she is surrounded (practically smothered by) sensible adults, the fun of it sort of fades.
It’s really a trap of the location. While it seems like a brilliant, spooky plan to confine sixty (plus) people to one place, really, he would have done better to cut the number to about twelve. Of course, that doesn’t make sense with the story as it stands, but it would have done a world of good for this particular device. I would actually read a second attempt by Bradley if he took this idea and tweaked it – I like his style and core characters that much – and I’m curious to know if anyone has a suggestion for a particularly successful book in this “genre.” There are certainly novels like The Maze Runner or Lord of the Flies that do a lot with a slightly larger but still contained setting, but what I really want is a book where square footage is at a premium. Feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments.
For more about Alan Bradley, go here.