Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is a lonely child and (some would say) too clever for her own good. Raised (in the broadest terms) by her widowed father, alternately ignored and scorned by her two older sisters, Flavia finds solace --- and sometimes revenge --- among the test tubes and beakers of her chemistry lab. Inspired by her ancestor, Tarquin de Luce, a noted chemist in his own right, Flavia devotes her time to understanding chemical reactions --- and maybe to brewing up a poison or two.
That is, unless a mystery comes to the small English town of Bishop’s Lacey. In Alan Bradley’s first novel, THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE, Flavia helped solve the murder of a visiting childhood friend of her father’s, utilizing her chemistry knowledge --- and, frankly, her tendency to be overlooked and underestimated by the adults around her --- to get to the bottom of the case.
In THE WEED THAT STRINGS THE HANGMAN’S BAG, Flavia’s second outing, a famous touring puppeteer, Rupert Porson, and his girlfriend/assistant, Nialla, land in Bishop’s Lacey but not by choice. Car troubles keep them in the village long enough to put on a show or two. But when Rupert dies in dramatic fashion in the middle of his show, Flavia knows it’s no accident.
Flavia has already suspected that Rupert has a pre-existing connection to the troubled Ingleby family, still grieving the loss of their young son to an accidental (or was it?) hanging several years earlier, and to the Inglebys’ resident German prisoner-of-war, the handsome, Brontë-obsessed Dieter. Could Rupert’s passing be connected to the earlier death of the child Robin Ingleby? Can Mad Meg, the only witness to that event, be trusted? And will Flavia solve the mystery before the police give up altogether?
Flavia de Luce is a delightful, completely original new heroine in mystery fiction. Alan Bradley, an experienced children’s author, clearly has an ear for how to make Flavia’s voice both convincingly childlike and wickedly precocious. Flavia’s narration offers readers a humorous combination of genuine insights --- often gleaned from her sophisticated chemical knowledge and her top-secret experiments --- with a naïveté of which she is, of course, totally unaware. Accompanied by her trusty bicycle Gladys, Flavia is both utterly fearless and cannily sly, exploiting her own inconspicuousness to get information from virtually everyone.
In this new series, Bradley cleverly reinvents the somewhat stale English country village mystery genre. All the elements --- the 1950s setting, the crumbling manor house, the bumbling vicar and his busybody wife, the resident “madwoman,” the string of (doomed) visitors from outside --- are here. Bradley deftly and wittily satirizes the genre without falling into parody, but at the same time as he plays with conventions, he grants his setting a gravity born of a more modern-day perspective. The post-World War II setting gives the story some seriousness, particularly in the characters of Dogger, the shell-shocked gardener, and Dieter, the prisoner of war.
Even as Bradley continues to develop Flavia’s singular character, he is also shaping the personality of the entire village of Bishop’s Lacey, a place that readers will eagerly revisit --- with full foreknowledge that it’s the visitors who are most likely to be the victims of the next crime.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 9, 2010