After hearing so many good things about Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries, I had high hopes for this book – and I wasn’t disappointed. It was every bit as enjoyable and delightful as I had been told it was.
Eleven year old Flavia de Luce, who wears her hair in pigtails and rides a bike called Gladys, most be one of the most unusual detectives in fiction. Her biggest passion is for chemistry – and more specifically, for poisons. She loves nothing more than spending time conducting experiments in her own fully equipped laboratory and her heroes include famous chemists such as Marie Paulze Lavoisier, Robert Bunsen and Henry Cavendish.
When a dead bird with a rare stamp impaled on its beak is found on the de Luces’ doorstep, Flavia is puzzled by the effect the discovery has on her father. Later, Flavia finds something much more sinister in the cucumber patch and when her father is accused of murder, she becomes determined to clear his name.
Although this wasn’t a particularly complex mystery, it was an interesting one, involving magic tricks, a sheet of Penny Black stamps and a slice of custard pie. There were parts of it that I could figure out quite easily but others that took me by surprise. I don’t often read mysteries anymore, but this book reminded me of exactly why I used to love them! However, the mystery itself is only one element of this book. I think due to the characters and the setting (which includes all the little period details that place the story firmly in 1950 and perfectly capture a small village atmosphere), this series could appeal even to non-mystery lovers.
The main reason I enjoyed this book so much was Flavia herself. She really is a wonderful character, innocent and lovable one minute, ruthless and vengeful the next (at the beginning of the book she runs away in tears when her sisters Ophelia and Daphne taunt her by pretending she’s adopted – and then proceeds to inject poison ivy into Ophelia’s lipstick). The chemistry aspect of the book particularly interested me as I have a degree in chemistry myself – although I was never as passionate as Flavia about the subject! She seems to have a PhD level grasp of the subject already. And her sphere of knowledge also encompasses literature, history, film and music. She’s so incredibly clever and independent that it’s easy to forget she’s only supposed to be eleven. There’s no way you would expect a real child of that age to speak or behave the way Flavia does – and yet somehow, in a strange way, I was able to overlook the fact that she’s so unrealistic and could accept her as a plausible character.
I’ve seen comparisons with Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy, but while I was reading this book I was also reminded of Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers series, which was also set in a small English village in the 1940s/50s and featured a group of children who always solved the mystery before the village policeman. I have no idea if Alan Bradley would have been inspired by those books at all, but there are definitely some similarities.
I loved this book and now I can’t wait to read The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag!