Alan Bradley has commented that Flavia de Luce walked “full-blown” onto the pages of another book he was writing and “hijacked the story”. I can believe this. I have seldom come across a character that is as alive as Flavia, the utterly unique, eleven-year-old heroine of Alan Bradley’s new series.
She is a totally smart, precocious and believable person in her own right. In 1950, when this story takes place, children were left far more alone to develop their personal time activities. Every moment wasn’t planned for them; they didn’t rush from one guided activity to another. They found what interested them and dove into it to whatever degree their intelligence and concentration span allowed. Flavia has a deep and abiding interest in chemistry and poisons, and, to me, her delights in them were exactly right. She lives in an ancestral manor home and has one wing almost to herself. A youthful ancestor had enjoyed an interest in chemistry and was indulged with a fully equipped lab where, now, Flavia can read and experiment and the small stinky experiences that are a by-product usually don’t disturb the rest of the household.
She’s not a grown-up in disguise. She has a running feud with her sisters – as siblings are prone to do. She even treated the lipstick of one of her sisters with poison ivy and waited daily for signs of a result, recording each observation in her diary. She experiences some moments of joy when the result becomes obvious and then suffers the consequences when ‘payback’ comes her way. Flavia rides her deceased mother’s bicycle and sometimes pretends she is flying. And, she believes music should be listened to in an overstuffed chair with her legs dangling over the side.
In other words, she’s a kid. But she is smart, and when her father is arrested for a murder she is determined to prove him innocent.
Her faithful sidekick is Dogger who has taught her how to pick locks. (Something that comes in handy as in the opening scene we find Flavia locked in an attic closet by her sisters as part of their on-going sibling war). Dogger served under Flavia’s father in the war and is a traumatized ex-prisoner-of-war who has bad moments from time to time. Flavia, in a child’s intuitive way knows exactly how to ‘rescue’ him. They have a wonderful relationship.
It is a little unusual for an adult book to have a child as the protagonist, but because of Flavia, it works marvelously well. She may have high-jacked Bradley’s book; she will certainly high-jack your heart. This is a mystery series to be savored.