I have read the 74th book for the book challenge. It was I Am Half-Sick Of Shadows: A Flavia De Luce Novel by Alan Bradley.
It is Christmastime at Buckshaw, just outside the small village of Bishop’s Lacey. Colonel Haviland de Luce, in an effort to keep the tax collectors from his doors, has made a deal with a film crew to use Buckshaw as a movie set during the Christmas season. Unfortunately for the three de Luce girls, this means no Christmas decorations at Buckshaw this year. Flavia is crushed, but Dogger promises her a Christmas tree in the greenhouse.
The film crew and the cast arrives. The director is the famed Val Lampmann. And the stars of the film are the legendary Phyllis Wyvern and Desmond Duncan. Phyllis Wyvern is noted for her many, many roles in all sorts of films both in England and on the continent. She is the grande dame of film. The three girls are in awe of her. She is ensconced in the Blue Bedroom (after she tried unsuccessfully to commandeer Harriet’s boudoir). She has brought with her Bun, her assistant, and her secretary, Marion Trodd.
An accident befalls the chief of the construction crew of the film set and a subordinate must take his place. This throws the company into turmoil. But the show must go on. Flavia gets into the busyness of the film set. She is curious about all the things that go into making a film. Feeley get a small walk-on role in the movie.
But Flavia is also curious about Father Christmas. Her sisters keep telling her that he isn’t real. She isn’t sure. She has devised a test to trap Father Christmas. She has manufactured buckets of birdlime which she will slather on the chimney pots of the west wing on Christmas Eve, thus ensuring that Father Christmas will be stuck to the chimney and she will catch him and prove he is real. Flavia also plans to set off a massive display of fireworks on Christmas Eve to celebrate her discovery. She works to prepare the fireworks that she will set out on Christmas Eve.
The vicar is thrilled to have the great actress Phyllis Wyvern at Buckshaw and so near to Bishop’s Lacey. He arrives to beg her to do a dramatic reading to benefit St. Tancred’s Roof Fund. Miss Wyvern agrees to do the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet with Desmond Duncan at Buckshaw for the Roof Fund. The vicar has his wife Cynthia print up tickets and call people to come out for the performance. It is arranged that Dieter will shuttle people from the village to Buckshaw with the tractor.
There is a snowstorm the night of the performance. The snow is really coming down but the people come out to see Phyllis Wyvern and Desmond Duncan. Finally, the house is decorated for Christmas with evergreen boughs and holly for the performance. The spotlights are in place. Desmond Duncan as Romeo comes out on the foyer and speaks his lines in the spotlight. Then Phyllis Wyvern steps out on the balcony on the stairs. The spotlight does not go on. She comes down the stairs and climbs up the scaffolding to the man controlling the spotlight and slaps him. Then she goes back to her place. The spotlight comes on and she says her lines. The scene continues. The audience loves the scene. Unfortunately, the snow has continued to fall and the tractor engine has frozen and no one can leave Buckshaw. The villagers are stranded at Buckshaw overnight.
The villagers are made comfortable in the foyer and the drawing room at Buckshaw. Phyllis Wyvern retires to her room. Flavia goes to bed, but gets up and wants to talk to Phyllis Wyvern. She goes to Phyllis Wyvern’s room and hears a film flapping. Miss Wyvern often watches her films in her room. Flavia knocks but there is no answer. Flavia enters the room and finds Phyllis Wyvern dead, dressed in her peasant costume from Dressed For Dying, the film that has just finished playing. She has been strangled with a length of film, and a bow of film has been tied around her neck. Flavia notices that someone has applied makeup to Miss Wyvern after she was killed. Flavia goes to get Dogger, then she goes to get Dr. Darby, who has been stranded with the other villagers. Then they send word to Inspector Hewitt in Hinley.
Inspector Hewitt has a house full of suspects. He proceeds to interview all the villagers to see if they heard or saw anything. Flavia of course is a prime witness. She heard someone in the WC and in the hall. She came upon the body soon after the murder. Flavia sneaks back into Phyllis Wyvern’s room through the adjoining room. She finds Phyllis Wyvern’s driving license, issued to Phyllida Lampmann. She also finds a note in the toe of Phyllis Wyvern’s boot. Inspector Hewitt catches Flavia coming out of the adjoining room and she turns over her finds to him. She also investigates the movie magazines in the small closet under the stairs by the foyer. There she sees many pictures of Phyllis Wyvern and an actress called Norma Durance who looks very familiar. Then one magazine gets too close to the light bulb and there is a small fire.
Inspector Hewitt wants to time the running of the balcony scene. Daffy finds a copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in the Buckshaw library, a Shakespeare Quarto that is very old. Desmond Duncan says he can’t use it because it contains inaccuracies. But he knows the scene by heart. So does Daffy. Desmond plays Romeo again and Daffy says Juliet’s lines.
Two days have passed and everyone is still snowed in at Buckshaw. Now it is Christmas Eve and Flavia puts her plan to catch Father Christmas into place. She first puts her fireworks on the roof of Buckshaw. Then she slathers the birdlime onto the chimney pots of the west wing chimneys of Buckshaw. But she sees other footprints. Could they be those of Father Christmas? No, she sees the other person. The other person is wearing a helmet and goggles and glasses. It is Marion Trodd! And she is coming after Flavia! Flavia manages to out-manouveur her and Marion Trodd gets stuck in the birdlime in the chimney pots. Flavia runs to get back into the house but is blocked by Val Lampmann. She fights with Lampmann who has broken off a bamboo pole that holds an antenna. Both Flavia and Lampmann lose their balance and both fall–off the roof.
Lampmann lands on Phyllis Wyvern’s car and breaks his neck and is killed. Flavia lands in a deep snow bank. She cracks some ribs but is all right. The storm produces lightning which ignites the fireworks on the roof and while Flavia is lying in the snowbank, she sees the wondrous fireworks display. Indeed, the whole village and even Hinley sees Flavia’s fireworks display. It is spectacular.
Flavia is brought into the house and is ensconced on the drawing room divan. The villagers from Bishop’s Lacey have finally gone home. Flavia and Inspector Hewitt debrief about Phyllis Wyvern’s murder. Marion Trodd was the actress Norma Durance. Val Lampmann was Phyllis Wyvern’s son. He promised the role in this new movie to Marion Trodd, so he killed his mother. It was sort of like an Agatha Christie murder, there were so many suspects. They also did it for the inheritance. Val Lampann killed his mother with a length of film and a knot he learned in the Navy. Marion Trodd tied the bow and applied the makeup. They dressed her in the peasant costume after they murdered her. The note in the boot explained why Phyllis Wyvern thought they were after her.
Desmond Duncan comes in to tell the de Luces that he has some information for them about the Shakespeare Quarto that they loaned him. With the inscription in the front removed (the intertwining of Haviland’s and Harriet’s initials), this is a first edition from Shakespeare’s times and probably worth at least a million pounds. But the Colonel cannot bear to have the inscription removed and part with this special book. He quotes Romeo’s words at the death of Juliet and everyone knows he is talking finally about his feelings about the death of Harriet.
Alan Bradley has crafted another stellar Flavia de Luce story. I had read this story previous, but as I re-read it, I honestly could not remember any of it from before. I wonder why. It was all brand-new to me. It was a fascinating story of the cinema and murder, and a girl’s efforts to ensnare Father Christmas with glue and prove her sisters wrong about his existence. And of course, there are Flavia’s mixing of the various chemical components of the fireworks–which will produce which combinations of colors. Better living through chemistry. Flavia de Luce never fails to make me smile.