Series: Flavia de Luce #1
Author: Alan Bradley
Pages: 382 (paperback)
Published: January 19th 2010
Published by: Bantam
It is the summer of 1950 - and at the once-grand mansion of Buckshaw, young Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison, is intrigued by a series of inexplicable events: A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Then, hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. "I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life."
I grew up reading Enid Blyton adventure books: kids running round and solving mysteries; The Famous Five mostly but also bits and pieces of The Secret Seven. They were set in a different time, when four children (and their dog) could go on holiday together and snoop around new places. Sweetness was recommended to me by a friend, and as soon as he told me about it this sort of the thing was the first thing that came to mind and I was quite excited by the idea.
Flavia is a fiercely independent 11-year-old girl living in a big old house in the English countryside. She has two very annoying older sisters and a passion for chemistry, a love which riddles the entire book in the form of her thoughts and role-models. She is clearly incredibly intelligent and has spent much time learning about all things chemical, aided by a laboratory inherited from a long dead relation - one of the benefits of an ancestral home I suppose! When a dead body turns up in the garden, Flavia wastes no time in trying to get to the bottom of what's going on.
Bradley has created a very good leading lady in Miss Flavia Sabina de Luce. She is smart and quick-witted, if a little forgetful at times. Some things are forgiveable given the amount she learns in such short spaces of time, but forgetting that the local post office will be shut on a Sunday and going wandering about the back of it because of it was a little unbelievable. Though of course you couldn't have had her and the plot kicking their heels for a day, waiting to find out certain important pieces of information.
And of course, this is still a crime novel so the there are the requisite lengthy expositions about the past so that motives can be uncovered, and the the big long explanation at the end where all the clues are brought together. All this is necessary, but these are the things I don't like about crime books and may be part of the reason I don't really read them any more.
Flavia is really the only central character; there are secondary characters with whom she interacts, but her main companion is herself and her musings are all internal. I think it would have been nice for her to have someone to bounce off of, and also so she wasn't working everything out for herself but I can understand why she is so solitary given the nature of her two sisters. Maybe this is something that may be built on further in the series? Though her companion would have to be quite brilliant in their own way to keep up with Miss de Luce!
The writing itself is very easy to read and very descriptive of the surroundings, maybe overly so at times. On a number of occasions I was actually pulled out of the story and noticed just how much description was being used and it was a little distracting, but then Flavia herself is very observant so it is the way she sees the world, and probably quite useful in all her sleuthing.
I don't really have any complaints about this book, but while it was very good it wasn't amazing. There maybe wasn't quite enough happening during her actual detecting: there was a big finish, but after the inital murder the rest of the story is just her finding out stuff. Still, a very enjoyable book, with a mystery with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing and a nice story all-round. A series I'm sure I'll carry on with at some point.