Instead of posting a review for each of these novels, I’m doing 3-in-1.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
A Red Herring Without Mustard
I don’t usually read a lot of mysteries, and I definitely don’t normally read “cozy” mysteries, but Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series is absolutely perfect for staying indoors on a winter afternoon and drinking far too much tea. It’s light, clever, and distinctly British. Definitely beats having to shovel snow!
Flavia de Luce is an eleven year old detective in the making. She’s brilliant, inquisitive, and not afraid to get herself into all sorts of bad situations. Growing up at Buckshaw, her family’s long-standing home, Flavia has been given free-reign of an old chemistry lab in an abandoned wing of the house. Having lost her mother years earlier, Flavia has been left to her own devices, and they just happen to be murder, mystery, and a love of poisons.
In each novel, Flavia is somehow exposed to a murder, and like any curious young girl, she decides it would be a great help to the police if she aided their investigation. Using her skills of deduction (it does feel a little bit Holmesian at times), her quick thinking, and an extraordinary understanding of chemical processes, Flavia makes some startling discoveries and eventually helps to catch a murderer. Her genius is all laid bare at the end of the story where she outlines every step the killer must have took, and every deduction she made along to way to help her solve the mystery. Unfortunately for Flavia, she’s still only a girl, and often fails to receive the attention she believes she’s due.
What sets Flavia apart, aside from her age, is her voice as a narrator. You might think it strange that a middle-aged author decided to write in the voice of an 11-year-old girl, but the result is surprisingly good. Flavia comes across like any young self-absorbed genius would, but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re reading it. She’s funny without knowing it, and though her intellect isn’t in dispute, it is often at odds with her maturity. She doesn’t understand reproduction, and so has to try to fill in those gaps on her own. When her older sister’s tease her about being adopted or switched at birth, Flavia gets extremely upset, but then plots her revenge using poisoned lipstick. It would be too easy to forget how young our narrator is without Bradley adding these elements of immaturity. They also serve as great comedic relief.
I mentioned earlier that I don’t usually read “cozy” mysteries, but what makes them cozy? I always had a vague set of parameters, but thank-you Wikipedia for a more concrete definition. The violence and/or sexual nature of the crime is downplayed in the story, often happening “off camera”. The stories are usually set in a small, intimate community with strong social interactions and a small group of townsfolk who all know each other. The detectives are almost always amateurs, they are often women, and they are almost always dismissed by the authorities. The murderer is usually a member of the community who has committed a single crime to solve a single problem rather than a serial killer set loose on the town. This makes them more rational and educated, and it’s likely that when they are caught, they will be taken into custody to serve their time without any real hassle.
Now we’ve all learned something. And I can safely say that this isn’t what I would normally go for. I like criminal psychology and behaviour. I find serial killers oddly fascinating. So this isn’t my sort of thing. But Flavia is such a great character, and the books are short enough to read in an afternoon, that I am hooked on this series.