It is June 1950 and a sleepy English village is about to be awakened by the discovery of a dead body in Colonel de Luce's cucumber patch. The police are baffled, and when a dead snipe is deposited on the Colonel's doorstep with a rare stamp impaled on its beak, they are baffled even more. Only the Colonel's daughter, the precocious Flavia -when she's not plotting elaborate revenges against her nasty older sisters in her basement chemical laboratory, that is - has the ingenuity to follow the clues that reveal the victim's identity, and a conspiracy that reached back into the de Luce family's murky past. Flavia and her family are brilliant creations, a darkly playful and wonderfully atmospheric flavour to a plot of delightful ingenuity.
If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie had a love child it would be Flavia de Luce.
Flavia is an eleven-year-old ‘mad scientist’ with a penchant for mischief and an unquenchable curiosity about poisons. She lives in the English countryside, in the dilapidated manor house called Buckshaw – with her widowed father, two older sisters, housekeeper and gardener.
Flavia is just the right amount of precocious and endearing, obnoxious and charming. Under Alan Bradley’s capable writing, Flavia is darn near impossible to dislike, and she steals the show with her cheeky voice and cunning.
If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as "dearie". When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poisons, and come to "Cyanide", I am going to put under "Uses" the phrase "Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one 'Dearie.' "
She rides around on her trusty bicycle (‘Gladys’) and does delightfully disturbing things like fashion lock-picks out of her dental braces. And if the occasion calls for it, she’ll also try her hand at solving murder mysteries, or proving her father’s innocence. All in a day’s work, really.
An eleven-year-old girl sleuth is bound to draw comparisons to Nancy Drew. Honestly though, Flavia has more in common with Veronica Mars than Nancy. Beyond the superficial similarities, these girl detectives have nothing in common, thanks in large part to Bradley’s masterful writing. Unlike ‘Nancy Drew’, the Flavia de Luce Mystery series appeals to adults and young adults alike. The mysteries in both books are juicy and Christie-esque enough to captivate older readers, while a dash of Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton keeps things interesting for younger readers.
And then there’s the fact that Alan Bradley’s writing is a sumptuous delight. He comes out swinging in his opening lines, and never lets up. Bradley writes first lines better than some author’s write entire novels:
The first line of ‘Sweetness’:
It was as black in the closet as old blood
The first line of ‘Hangman’s Bad’:
I was lying dead in the churchyard.
I loved the setting of 1950 rural England. It adds real flavor to the novel, not least of all because you get Flavia spouting ‘jolly good’ phrases; my personal favorite was “suck my galoshes!”
‘The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag’ BLURB:
The plot, beginning with the arrival in Bishop's Lacey of a traveling puppet show, features a grisly murder during a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk in the village hall and reaches back to an earlier, even nastier crime centering on an ancient, rotting gibbet that has lain like a shadow over the village for years. For Flavia, undoing the complex knot that ties these strands together will test her precocious powers of deduction to the limit - and provide a shocking insight into some of the darker corners of the adult world.
In the second book, ‘The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag’, the English countryside setting is even better utilized. In this second installment there’s a greater focus on the little village of Bishop’s Lacey, as readers are introduced to deliciously quirky villagers that add real pizzazz to the murder-mystery plot.
I had just been checkmated.
“You’re free to go,” he added, glancing at his wristwatch. “It’s probably past your bedtime.”
The nerve of the man! Past my bedtime indeed! Who did he think he was talking to?
“May I ask a question?”
“You may,” he said, “although I might not be able to answer it.”
“Was Rupert – Mr Porson, I mean – electrocuted?”
Alan Bradley has written a strong, sometimes precocious, and always cunning child detective in Flavia de Luce. She is a sleuthing heroine to rival Miss Marple, and she leaves Nancy Drew for dead! I absolutely fell in love with this series, and I cannot recommend it highly enough!
I was very pleased to learn that Alan Bradley’s 3rd ‘Flavia de Luce Mystery’ is called “A Red Herring Without Mustard” and comes out sometime this year. Yay!