October 09

The Delights of Poison and Bicycles

Reading a Flavia de Luce mystery by Alan Bradley is like sneaking into a room you’re not supposed to enter and discovering a strangely carved chest of drawers with secrets inside. It is thrilling, delectable in the possiblities it offers, slightly dark and dangerous, and unabashedly fun. Flavia is the kind of eleven-year-old girl I would have liked to be, if I had been raised in a rambling old English mansion in the countryside and had a predilection for chemistry and murder investigation. While each book in the series offers a thoroughly entertaining set of quirky characters and surprisingly macabre deaths within an English hamlet in the 1950s, it is Flavia herself who stirs me to turn the page. With her trusty bicycle Gladys, Flavia waxes poetical about chemical processes, investigates murder scenes, interrogates witnesses, cozies up to suspects, and is always driven to discover the truth – preferably before anyone else. Flavia is no shrinking violet. The discovery of a body is as fascinating to her in a scientific sense as her delight in the study of poisons. Despite her occasional fantasies of eliminating insulting adults or her cruel older sisters Ophelia and Daphne, Flavia is no sociopath-in-the-making. The author, Alan Bradley, offers us a girl-sleuth who is intelligent, creative, hilarious, and heartbreaking. For, you see, Flavia is quite alone much of the time. The death of her mother, who perished in a mountaineering accident when Flavia was a baby (she, too, was an adventuress), seems to have paralyzed her household with grief. There is always a fear that her financially-challenged father will lose their home and that her sisters tell the truth when they taunt her that she is adopted, unwanted, and indirectly at fault for the death of their mother. Flavia’s yearning to love and to be loved by her family is a constant thread that tugs the reader through every book in the series. Even as Flavia establishes her local reputation as an amateur detective and adept chemist, she slowly discovers more about her own mother. Ultimately, the biggest mysteries Flavia must solve are the ones that hide within her own family.

Bradley was the winner of the CWA Debut Dagger Award in 2007 for introducing the world to Flavia. So far, there are six books in the series:

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag

A Red Herring Without Mustard

I am Half-Sick of Shadows

Speaking from Among the Bones

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (to be released in 2014 – I can’t wait!)

This is, quite simply, fantastic stuff. I think Agatha Christie would be quite pleased with Flavia. While I hope you pick up a Flavia de Luce mystery, I also wonder: what unforgettable sleuths do you love?