Spunk doesn’t begin to describe the indomitable Flavia de Luce. The 11-year-old girl with a passion for poisons spends her free time in a chemistry laboratory left by her grandfather in the attic of the crumbling mansion that houses her eccentric family. Flavia worries her widowed and reclusive father, bedevils her wicked sisters, and relies on the two faithful family retainers --- the cook and the butler --- for support. She blithely peddles about the 1950s English countryside on her faithful bicycle, Gladys, through dark fens, archaeological ruins and bands of gypsies as she consistently beats the local constabulary to dead bodies in unlikely places. If there is danger, she is blissfully unaware of it and pushes onward with the zest and enthusiasm only the innocence of youth can embrace.
The de Luce manor house has been in the family for generations. World War II and the mysterious disappearance and death of her mother when Flavia was a baby have left her father in financial ruin. He is forced into selling off the family silver and parting with his precious stamp collection in order to keep the leaking roof over the heads of his once-proud family. He is so immersed in his own grief and problems that Flavia and her odious but talented and beautiful sisters are left to their own devices.
Among the devious ways her sisters torment her is by trying to convince her that she is a changeling left in the real Flavia’s crib when she was stolen by the fairies. Flavia concocts fiendishly clever ways to get her revenge through chemical experiments conducted in her laboratory, often to hilarious results. Still, she feels like a misfit in this odd family, which leads her into becoming involved with a gypsy fortune teller, a smuggling ring, and a cult religion carrying out full moon rituals in the family woods.
As Flavia starts investigating the disappearance of valuable objects from her house, she discovers a previously unknown portrait of her mother and her sisters. In her mother’s lap is a small, swathed baby, and the picture has been residing in the studio of the artist since it was painted just before her mother’s death.
When Flavia discovers the body of a local antiquities collector impaled on Neptune’s trident in the sculpture garden of the de Luce estate, her curiosity is further piqued. The clues lead her down many dangerous paths until she sorts it all out. Not, however, without the indulgent assistance of the local police detective on whom she has developed an adolescent crush.
Alan Bradley freely professes to being taken over by the precocious young heroine of two earlier bestselling mysteries, THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE and THE WEED THAT STRINGS THE HANGMAN’S BAG. He has kept her at her charming 11-year-old prepubescent zest as she attacks life with the optimism and impetuosity that, alas, we jaded adults have shed. May Flavia continue to befuddle her father, outmaneuver her nasty sisters, keep the local detectives on their toes, and compel her creator to bring us her new adventures.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on October 4, 2011