There’s nothing as cozy as a Flavia de Luce mystery. Normally I shy away from genre fiction, spurn series, and tire quickly of child narrators – and yet I find the Flavia de Luce novels positively delightful. Why? Well, Canadian author Alan Bradley’s quaintly authentic mysteries are set at Buckshaw, a crumbling country manor house in 1950s England, where the titular eleven-year-old heroine performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders.
Flavia may be spiky and snotty – especially to her two older sisters, the one boy-crazy (Feely, or Ophelia) and the other book-obsessed (Daffy, or Daphne, with whom I rather sympathize) – but she sure knows her poisons, a skill that comes in handy surprisingly often in their rural idyll (like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, Bishop’s Lacey has an alarmingly high homicide rate). The other members of the de Luce crew are the girls’ standoffish father, a shell-shocked gardener, and an abysmal cook. Their mother, Harriet, who disappeared on a Himalayan climb some ten years ago, is, ironically, among the most palpable presences in the books.
I’ve mentioned the Flavia books before; they show up in my Bibliophile’s Miscellany articles on child narrators and graveyard scenes. It might be a good idea to start with the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (#1), just to have a sense of the main characters and the town (it also has a fun postage stamp-themed crime). After that, though, you can probably tackle the books in any order. Here I’ll discuss the rest of the individual titles that complete the series.
What I found very peculiar indeed about this one was the striking resemblances to, of all things, The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Both novels have as their backstory the murder by hanging of a little boy named Robin, and in the present day focus on a spunky girl who is determined to solve the mystery of Robin’s death. Each book even includes a sort of spooky “tower” where events come to a head: a water tower in The Little Friend and a tall dovecote in The Weed That Strings… To what could one attribute these uncanny similarities?
The third Flavia de Luce mystery deftly introduces new characters and settings to keep things from going stagnant. However, it does make one wonder why an eleven-year-old is larking about solving crimes when she should be in school. I suppose it’s possible that all three books are meant to have taken place during the summer holidays? At any rate, Bradley’s books do some things very well: creating an authentic feel for the British 1950s (he either has some personal knowledge or a very good researcher), coming up with rather novel murder weapons (here, a crystal ball and a lobster pick), and keeping us guessing about the exact nature of Flavia’s mother’s death.
Christmas comes to Buckshaw. As the book opens, readers learn that the de Luces have had to rent out the ancestral home to a film crew to pay their debts. The movie will feature leading lady Phyllis Wyvern, an aging starlet along the lines of Gloria Swanson’s character in Sunset Boulevard. Bradley is good at creating original and shocking murder tableaux: here a character is found strangled to death with a film reel. Meanwhile, a blizzard has stranded half the town of Bishop’s Lacey at the house, where the stars had agreed to put on a charity performance of part of Romeo and Juliet to raise money for the church roof. This sets the scene for a country house murder mystery like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: a kind of locked room investigation, with plenty of suspects among the captives. In another Christmas subplot, Flavia is determined to capture Father Christmas (if he exists) using birdlime around the chimneys – which ends up being rather helpful for catching a suspect during the tense final chase scene on the roof.
The town of Bishop’s Lacey is marking 500 years since the death of its patron, St. Tancred, by exhuming his remains. But when the tomb is opened, the townspeople find a much fresher body – that of the church organist. Our precocious amateur chemist-detective has yet another Gothic mystery to solve. A perfect Halloween read.
The best yet! In this installment, Flavia finally learns of her unexpected inheritance from her mother. The first line epitomizes what I turn to Flavia de Luce mysteries for – cozy period Britishness: “To begin with, it was a perfect English morning.” It’s a somber time, however, as Buckshaw hosts a funeral; “Perhaps in time I shall learn the antidote for grief,” Flavia muses in an uncharacteristically melancholy moment. Still, there’s plenty to keep a girl detective’s spirits chirrupy: spies, assassinations, code words, flights in a small plane, and a cameo appearance from Winston Churchill.
This time her regular adventures in chemistry include advanced photographic development, invisible writing, and – most challenging of all – the attempted resurrection of the dead. Flavia’s whip-smart cousin Undine is another highlight. I truly believe that Bradley hit his stride with this one: I laughed more than ever, and could see more of Flavia’s development as a character. As the book ends, she’s getting ready to move in new directions – perhaps, nearing age 12, she is finally growing up.
“I have seen numerous dead bodies in my lifetime, each more interesting than the last, and each more instructive. This one, if I was counting correctly, was number seven.”
Unfortunately, this latest book feels like a misstep. The biggest change is that Flavia is not freewheeling about her beloved English village, but banished to an all-girls’ boarding school outside Toronto. Although there are some promising characters (with quirky nicknames) to make up for the change, none quite live up to the stock cast. The preponderance of adolescent girls also changes the dynamic of the book; the others work so well because Flavia is that rare, precocious child in a staid, adult world. So although you still get the joy of her gutsy first-person narration, the usual pleasures of a Flavia novel are diminished. However, Bradley shines at period slang, even if he does go rather over the top in places: “I felt like tossing my toast…she could jolly well suck my salmon sandwiches.”
Luckily, things look to be back on track for Books #8–10 – Flavia’s headed back to Buckshaw! These mysteries are fluffy, certainly, but very enjoyable: long may they continue. You could do far worse than pick up a Flavia de Luce mystery on a drizzly day.
I also enjoyed this recent Goodreads review with Alan Bradley.