Chemistry, Death, and Flavia de Luce

If I were to (rather randomly) tell you that I love the relationship between a seventy-something year old man and an eleven year old girl, you’d probably be a little shocked. I don’t blame you; it’s a weird sentence and I feel sort of creepy typing it. But it’s true.

I’ve been binge-reading Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books for the past few months and just finished the seventh, most recent, installment this week. It was an excellent use of my time.

If you haven’t heard of them, here are the basics:

The Characters

Flavia de Luce is a precocious girl living in England in the 1950’s. She’s obsessed with chemistry, with a particular passion for poisons, and has a knack for getting herself stuck in the middle of a murder investigation. She is bold, inquisitive, and, above all, clever. Reviews have described her as a combination of Harriet the Spy and Violet Baudelaire, and I can’t think of a better comparison. Bradley does a wonderful job of bringing her to life; I didn’t even realize how old he was until earlier this year, and you certainly wouldn’t suspect it from his writing.

The rest of the characters are just as colourful and well rounded. There are Flavia’s sisters – the vain Ophelia and the bookish Daphne (or Feely and Daffy, as she calls them), who are not above torturing their younger sister. The handyman-valet-gardner Dogger, who served with Flavia’s father during the war and suffers from PTSD but is still always there when Flavia needs him most. Her absent (in mind, not body) father who collects stamps and mourns his beloved wife Harriet, who was lost in Tibet ten years earlier. Mrs. Mullet, the gossipy housekeeper whose food is eaten more out of necessity than any real pleasure. And a myriad other people who populate the streets of Bishop’s Lacey.

The books! Featuring pretty covers and part of my blanket. 

The books! Featuring pretty covers and part of my blanket. 

The Mysteries

I don’t love all the books equally – some are better than others. But they’re all well thought out and, of course, extremely well written. Though almost all of them involve a dead body, the circumstances – and the bodies – are varied: a puppeteer, a movie star, the church organist, even Flavia’s own mother.

While there are a certain amount of random clues – things you, the reader, couldn’t have possibly known – the explanations are plausible. Flavia is extraordinarly bright and knows more than the average eleven year old, but since that is just a part of her personality, you don’t question it. Her advantage is her age; often, people will inadvertedly give her clues or hints without realizing that she understands the hidden meanings.

By the sixth book, the books are no longer confined to the various mysteries around Bishop’s Lacey. Instead, we start to get a “bigger picture” idea, with more information popping up about Flavia’s mother Harriet, plus a new story arch that sees Flavia shipped off to Canada for schooling in the seventh novel.   

If you enjoy character-driven mysteries, I highly recommend taking a trip to Buckshaw and hanging out with Flavia for the day. If anything, you’ll  come out the other side understanding chemistry a lot more than you did in high school.

And because I'm shameless when it comes to self-promotion, if you want to see my individual reviews of the books, please click here