I’m a massive Flavia de Luce fan. I’ve read all of them. Who wouldn’t want to read about a little girl who misses her mother and is obsessed with chemistry and poisons? Who wouldn’t like that little girl to be the first person narrator, scarily intelligent yet still enough of a kid to be a fascinatingly unreliable narrator?
Yes, I’m a mystery buff, but even so, I can testify that not all mystery authors are created equally. Some are craftsmen and some are hacks. Some go for puzzles and leave out characterization. Worse yet, some go for characterization and sensationalism and leave out the puzzle. Some are Anglophiles and not actually English, and that can be annoying– though not in this case, happily! Also, I am rather biased in that I do tend to compare all modern authors to Christie, Sayers and Allingham, and that’s not fair. But you know what? It’s my brain, and I’m the one reading, and so there it is. Most authors simply fall short. Sometimes I can overlook it, or a novel will have a saving grace– sometimes not.
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, however, belongs squarely in that Golden Age pantheon. Rarely do I see a fingerprint of the author that reminds me that I’m reading a new book. There are dropped clues– some of them interpreted by Flavia, some of them not picked up by her necessarily, but by the reader instead– and red herrings, and some tendrils of subplots. It is a fun read, and I was able to devour it while still recuperating from a chest cold, yet I didn’t feel like I was reading the sort of thing you want to delete from your Kindle. Admit it! We have all read those sorts of things, haven’t we? Where we pummel through to the very end to find out whodunnit, but then we are so annoyed with the author, or the character, or ourselves, that we delete it or give it away? Well, I admit it, anyway. And this is not one of those books, I am happy to say.
There is, now that I am thinking about it, a dream sequence that helps Flavia figure it all out– and I felt a bit disappointed about that. Yes, dreams really do help you piece together those seemingly disparate parts of your life and can help you make sense of things, but in a mystery novel it feels too easy. It circumnavigates some basic rules that detective fiction needs in order for the reader to not feel cheated. I actually whined, “Oh, maaaan!” to myself as I read that part and had to set the book down for a few hours before I finished it up. This is the only thing I even remotely disliked, though. If I reviewed books on Amazon, I wouldn’t demote it by a star or anything like that.
Some of my favorite Agatha Christies revolve around village life, and the Flavia series are deeply embedded in it. I love it when the vicar (amongst others) appears, taking a larger part in some novels more than others. I love returning to her crumbling home, her lab/bedroom, and I feel as though I’m tooling about the village too, when she is cycling about on Gladys (she named her bike). If you find yourself wanting to disappear into St. Mary’s Mead despite the alarming death rate, give The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie a go. They are all good, but the characterizations build subtly and why not start with the first?