Review: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley

Ask and you shall receive.

I’ve heard cat lovers speak of “Cat Central,” a mystical agency that assigns cats to their destined homes, often by opaque or circuitous chains of cause and effect. Sometimes I think there’s a version of this for books and authors, bringing a certain volume into your hands at just the right time.

Last month I asked for #AFewGoodMysteries, and Book Central came through.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d is my first meeting with Alan Bradley‘s young sleuth Flavia deLuce, but she won me over instantly. The tweenaged Flavia is not merely precocious, but a full-fledged genius, with all the awkwardness, isolation, and cockeyed perspective that can entail. Mr. Bradley has given Flavia deep insight and an often morbid detachment. He’s also given her a heart full of compassion, courage, and longing.

The title is Shakespeare, of course — the “Cauldron Scene” from Macbeth. The mystery begins with Flavia discovering a corpse in strange, possibly ritualistic circumstances, and we do find a reputed witch (with her feline familiar) nearby. In a larger sense, the epigraph “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble…” points to Flavia’s own situation. Her particular gift, the lens through which she sees the world, is chemistry. Her attic laboratory is the place she takes all her own “toils and troubles,” where she mixes up forensic tests, photographic developer, Christmas decorations, and even a hot lunch.

The Macbeth passage also puts us on notice. Someone once said that all Shakespeare’s plays end with a wedding or a funeral. If you’ve never read Macbeth, I’ll give you a spoiler: it’s not a wedding.

A major trend in contemporary mystery series is the “long arc” of relationships and character development across all the books. This is a departure from classic detective stories which focus on a single episodic problem and leave the detectives’ personal lives firmly in the background. Even Sayers’ beloved “Peter and Harriet” romance occupies only three* out of eleven books, and never takes precedence over the puzzle. (*Busman’s Honeymoon uses their marriage as a given circumstance, not a plotline.)

Mr. Bradley has pulled off a neat sleight-of-hand in Brinded Cat that I hope to learn from. The emotional impact of Flavia’s personal story was so engrossing that it was several days before I realized there were (minor) loose ends in the plot.

Just last month, I got feedback from my Beta-reader team on my next book, Mister Mottley and the Dying Fall. They were incredibly helpful in pointing out confusing or unjustified events, and showed me many ways to make the plot seamless. By contrast, Mr. Bradley has left several red-herrings unexplained (or inconclusively explained), and it didn’t derail my attention or spoil my enjoyment one bit. He hooked me so thoroughly on Flavia’s thoughts and desires that it carried me all the way through without a hiccup. It’s exciting to find teachers who make studying the craft so enjoyable!

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d is set at Christmastime, but worth enjoying any time of year. I rate it Highly Recommended with 4.5/5 stars.

Squick Factor:

By request, I include a “squick factor” rating on reviews, to give tenderhearted readers a heads-up on graphic or disturbing material. For an example of what I consider Level Zero, check out my free short story “Mister Mottley and the Key of D.”

Booklist describes a prior Flavia book as a “treat for readers of all ages,” but I certainly wouldn’t consider this one suitable for my preteen children. Flavia examines the murder victim in clinical, though not lurid detail. There’s also extensive discussion of a “cold case” body with some gruesome features. To me the descriptions were not so much disturbing, as revelatory of Flavia’s unusual perspective. But extremely sensitive readers may want to skim those passages. Squick Factor = 1-2.

Squick Factor Range:
0 – Nil.
1 – Meh.
2 – Kinda.
3 – Oh yah, you betcha.
4 – GAAAHHH! Nuke it from space!

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