The “Flavia de Luce” mystery series, by Alan Bradley (book review)

Imagine, if you will, an eleven-year-old girl who loves chemistry and Gladys, her battered bicycle, and always seems to be the first to find dead bodies in a series of novels with such titles as The Sweetness At the Bottom Of the Pie, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, A Red Herring Without Mustard, I Am Half-sick Of Shadows, and Speaking from Among the Bones; an author who first started writing serious fiction in his mid-fifties and started to achieve fame for them in his sixties; and the extremely detailed setting of the novels was in a country he’d never visited.

If your imagination is still trying to assemble all that, here are the missing pieces to this award-winning series of mystery novels: Flavia de Luce, the young heroine; Alan Bradley, the Canadian author; 1951 England, the setting. And if you haven’t read any of these stories, why not? They’re the best fiction to come down the pike in a long time.

Flavia is the youngest of a motherless family of four. The father spends most of his time with his stamp collection, which leaves little time for parenting or keeping the debt collector from the door. The mother has been missing for years, reportedly disappearing during a ski trip to the Himalayas. Oldest sister Ophelia (Flavia disdainfully refers to her as “Feely”) spends most of her time primping or developing her talent for playing piano and organ; middle sister Daphne (“Daffy”, of course) rarely looks up from the works of literature she devours, committing obscure facts to memory (useful later on, we discover). And Flavia? She has taken over long-gone Uncle Tar’s chemistry lab on the top floor of their estate house.

In the opening scene of the first book, the older sisters have played a little prank on Flavia. They bind and gag her and leave her locked in an obscure closet to whatever fate may ensue. Flavia is free and out of the closet in seconds. And so it goes with Flavia – even when she’s the first to discover the dead body that crops up in each novel, she’s completely unflappable, as she’s more interested in the chemistry of death and even provides clues to the local gendarmes, who regard her pretty much as a nuisance but accept her findings, nonetheless, while she’s riding off in search of her next adventure.

The sixth in the series, The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches, is scheduled to be released in January 2014. Can I wait? Barely.

Now retired after 34 years of teaching English, Spanish, and journalism in public, private, and government schools. Hobbies: DX'ing (Google it!), gardening, collecting a lot of crap that now fills my house (I bet I have older computers than anyone who has better sense!).


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