By Alan Bradley
I read a recommendation for Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mystery series online and was intrigued by the idea of an 11-year-old girl detective in a small British town in the 1950s (seriously, who wouldn’t be?). Reading some background on the series before diving in, I also learned that the author wrote his first book, the first in this series, at the age of 70, which is just very encouraging to people who haven’t quite found the time to pursue their passion yet. Of course, he’s had to spend years now answering why a 70-year-old man chose an 11-year-old girl as his protagonist, which has got to get a little tiresome, but I thought his answer was a good one: he wanted his protagonist to be someone who is almost invisible in society, so is able to go unnoticed in pretty much every situation.
Anyway, I started with the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (I love his titles), and it was an utter delight! The mystery is a little obvious, but I was much more willing to forgive Flavia for not putting the pieces together much sooner, especially since a great deal of her time is spent trying to disrupt her family whenever possible. Her family consists of her emotionally distant widowed father and two older sisters banging around in their centuries-old ancestral home, and it is just classic British flakiness.
The author is maybe a little heavy with the similes at times, but though it sometimes distracted me, it was inoffensive overall. A sign of my advancing age may be that I often sympathized with the poor inspector who was just trying to solve a somewhat unpleasant murder and everywhere he turns, there’s a small girl underfoot, certainly quite bright, but still a very young child nonetheless. I struggle a bit to describe how well I think the author describes Flavia’s brilliance while also keeping her clearly quite young.
The second book, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (seriously, such fun titles!), however, has a passage in it that I think really showcases the balance and which I particularly loved. I’m including it after a page cut, not because it has spoilers (though it does spoil Madame Bovary, so take that caution I guess), but so that it doesn’t fill up the entire home page:
“Dogger,”* I said, when I found him at last, hacking away at the weeds in the kitchen garden with a long-handled hoe, “have you read Madame Bovary?”
Dogger paused in his work and extracted a handkerchief from the bib pocket of his overalls. He gave his face a thorough mopping before he replied.
“A French novel, is it not?” he asked.
“Ah,” Dogger said, and shoved his handkerchief back into his pocket. “The one in which a most unhappy person poisons herself with arsenic.”
“Arsenic from a blue jar!” I blurted, hopping from one foot to the other with excitement.
“Yes,” Dogger said, “from a blue jar. Blue, not because of any danger of decomposition or oxidation of the contents, but rather—“
“To keep it from being confused with a bottle containing a harmless substance.”
“Exactly,” Dogger said.
“Emma Bovary swallows the stuff due to several unhappy affairs,” I said.
Dogger studiously scraped a clod of mud from the sole of his shoe with the hoe.
“She had an affair with a man named Rodolphe,” I added, “and then with another, named Léon. Not at the same time, of course.”
“Of course,” Dogger said, and then fell silent.
“What does an affair entail, precisely?” I asked, hoping my choice of words would imply, even slightly, that I already knew the answer.
I thought for a moment that I could outwait him, even though my heart knew that trying to outwait Dogger was a mug’s game.
“What did Flaubert mean,” I asked at last, “when he said that Madame Bovary gave herself up to Rodolphe?”
“He meant,” Dogger said, “that they became the greatest of friends. The very greatest of friends.”
“Ah!” I said. “Just as I thought.”
Seriously—adorable! By the way, I thought this second book was much more cleverly plotted, and more tightly written, so all of my earlier qualifications are now gone, and I’ve already started the third book. (A Red Herring Without Mustard).
* Just to add the general zaniness, Dogger is an ex-soldier who served with Flavia’s father, and now serves as butler/valet/chauffer/gardener. He has serious PTSD, and is also Flavia’s main confidant and parental figure.