Saturday, June 12, 2010

the Flavia de Luce mysteries -- Alan Bradley

I just finished reading The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, the second installment in Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series. Despite being told many times over the years not to judge a book by its cover (and telling my students the same thing!), I admit that I was compelled to pick up the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in large part due to its fantastic cover design (No messy dust jacket? Hooray! And I'm not the only one who thinks so). Rumor has it that an editor at Doubleday Canada knew they had to publish Bradley's book after reading only the first fifteen pages. Once I quit staring at the cover, it took me less than that to be totally hooked on one of my favorite literary heroines.

Flavia de Luce Buckshaw is an incredibly precocious, curious, and brave little girl with a slight taste for the macabre and an obsession with all things chemical (especially poisonous chemicals!). She lives in a creaky old mansion with her stamp-collecting father and two older, exasperating sisters nicknamed "Feely" and "Daffy" who are constantly trying to convince her that their mother died because Flavia was too annoying/ugly/frustrating to bear. Flavia, when she is not trying to torment her sisters by adding potions to their makeup or chocolate boxes to induce hives and vomiting, pokes around into the lives -- and deaths -- of her neighbors in her small, 1950s-era English countryside town.

Both of the books so far have contained satisfying mysteries: Sweetness centers on the murder of a stranger who happens to turn up dead in the Buckshaws' garden, while Hangman focuses on the death of a traveling puppeteer. But more delicious than the "whodunit?" aspect of either book is the plucky, insightful voice of Flavia. What makes her so delightful as a narrator is that she is wise beyond her years (her vocabulary alone is astounding) and yet age-appropriately innocent (her conversation in Hangman with Dogger, the shell-shocked family gardener, about what it means "to have an affair" is a prime example). The narrative style here reminds me of Jane Austen's Emma -- we see everything through the eyes of the main character, but we're given an opportunity every so often to view her from a different angle (in Emma, it comes through the free indirect discourse of the third person voice; here, whenever Flavia is in the company of older characters whose comments and actions hold a mirror up to Flavia for us). This added insight and humor makes Flavia even more enjoyable to read about.

It might seem that a book with an 11-year-old narrator could only be intended for children, but I think Flavia will probably be best enjoyed by adults who can remember what it was like to be like her (or at least knew someone who was!). The murders and ensuing investigations, too, don't seem pitched at a young audience -- but then again, I was reading Agatha Christie in the 7th grade and Sherlock Holmes before that, so readers closer in age to Flavia might like these stories, too.

Here's a classic example of Flavia's voice and our opportunity to look at her from both inside and out, from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie:

Next morning I was busy among the flasks and flagons of my chemical laboratory on the top floor of the east wing when Ophelia barged in without so much as a la-di-dah.
"Where's my pearl necklace?"
I shrugged. "I'm not the keeper of your trinkets."
"I know you took it. The Mint Imperials that were in my lingerie drawer are gone too, and I've observed that missing mints in this household seem always to wind up in the same grubby little mouth."
I adjusted the flame on a spirit lamp that was heating a beaker of red liquid. "If you're insinuating that my personal hygiene is not up to the same high standard as yours you can go suck my galoshes."
...Ophelia peered shortsightedly into the ruby flask, which was just coming to the boil.
"What's that sticky mass in the bottom?" her long manicured fingernail tapped at the glass.
"It's an experiment. Careful, Feely, it's acid!"
Ophelia's face went white. "Those are my pearls! They belonged to Mummy!"
Ophelia was the only one of Harriet's daughters who referred to her as "Mummy": the only one of us old enough to have any real memories of the flesh-and-blood woman who had carried us in her body, a fact of which Ophelia never tired of reminding us. Harriet had been killed in a mountaineering accident when I was just a year old, and she was not often spoken of at Buckshaw.
Was I jealous of Ophelia's memories? Did I resent them? I don't believe I did; it ran far deeper than that. In rather an odd way, I despised Ophelia's memories of our mother.
I looked up slowly from my work so that the round lenses of my spectacles would flash blank white semaphores of light at her. I knew that whenever I did this, Ophelia had the horrid impression that she was in the presence of some mad black-and-white German scientist in a film at the Gaumont.
"Hag!" I retorted. But not until Ophelia had spun round on her heel -- quite neatly, I thought -- and stormed out the door.
Retribution was not long in coming, but then with Ophelia, it never was. Ophelia was not, as I was, a long-range planner who believed in letting the soup of revenge simmer to perfection.
Quite suddenly after dinner...without preamble, she said, "I'm not really your sister, you know...nor is Daphne. That's why we're so unlike you. I don't suppose it's ever even occurred to you that you're adopted."
I dropped my spoon with a clatter. "That's not true. I'm the spitting image of Harriet. Everybody says so."
"She picked you out at the Home for Unwed Mothers because of the striking resemblance," Ophelia said, making a distasteful face..."I saw it with my own eyes. I watched Mummy stuffing her own baby pictures into a green Gladstone bag to drag off to the home [to find a baby who looked like her]. Although I was only six at the time -- almost seven -- I'll never forget her white hands...her fingers on the brass clasp."
I leapt from the table and fled the room in tears. I didn't actually think of the poison until next morning at breakfast. As with all great schemes, it was a simple one.
(3-6, 2009 Delacorte Press edition)

Alan Bradley is a 70-something novelist from British Columbia (now Malta) who spent most of his life working in television broadcasting. Apparently, he imagines that the Flavia series will extend to 6 books eventually, and some of the future titles appear on his website. I, for one, am anxiously awaiting book three!

Final Verdict: ****


  1. My daughter was given the first book as a birthday gift from her grandmother, and we are reading it together aloud; we're about half way through as of this writing. (Yes, Virginia, twelve-year-olds still like to be read to by their mothers! :)

    I'm glad to know there is another ready and waiting!

  2. I love that you two are reading this book out loud. The ending is scary -- prepare yourself for some serious nailbiting!

  3. Now I must read it! And put it in the library. I love reading your book reviews, they are amazingly helpful for collection development:)

    The Library Dragon (PF)

  4. We just finished it Sunday night and thoroughly enjoyed the ending. I particularly loved the denouement with the inspector in the laboratory. Flavia de Luce is a wonderful addition to the Female Characters to Admire cadre!