Thursday, February 7, 2013

An incorrigible detective

Flavia de Luce is a normal 11 year-old living in England in the 1950s. She is tormented by her older sisters, in need of a mother, virtually ignored by everyone else, misunderstood, bright, and a legend in her own mind.

And she is an amateur chemist,

who lives with her Father (an ardent stamp collector) and two sisters (the aforementioned persecutors) in an ancient Victorian house,

and she has a passion for poisons,

and the habit of discovering dead bodies (no, they are not connected to her love of poisons—the worst she uses that for is to add the occasional skin irritant to her sister’s makeup kits).

Ok, so maybe she isn’t quite normal. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.

We first meet Miss de Luce in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, blindfolded and locked in a closet. How she got there, and how she escapes, are matters beyond the scope of this review. Needless to say, she does.

Only to discover a corpse in the cucumber patch, of all places.

She then strikes up a friendly rivalry with the local police Inspector Hewett, each trying to solve the case first. As the new corpse is tied to an old one, the case gets beyond what anyone initially imagined. (Were Inspector Hewett to be asked about the “rivalry,” he would likely wryly grin and characterize it as Miss de Luce getting in the way of the investigation. So it’s probably best we didn’t ask him.)

But then, Flavia has always been like that. The author Alan Bradley describes her thus:

"Like Athena, who sprang fully formed and fully armed from the brow of Zeus, Flavia simply appeared," the author says, speaking from his home in British Columbia. "She walked onto the page of another book I was writing, and simply hijacked the story. I had no idea who she was or where she came from, and because of that, I resisted her. It took Flavia a while to make me shut up and listen." 
More than hijacking the story, Flavia eventually forced the abandonment of the project. 
"I was working on another book set in the 50s about this young woman broadcaster on an exchange programme. I was well into it - about three or four  chapters - and as I introduced a main character, another detective, there was a point were he was required to go to a country house and interview this colonel," Bradley recalls. 
"I got him up to the driveway and there was this girl sat on a camp stool doing something with a notebook and a pencil and he stopped and asked her what she was going and she said 'writing down number plates' and he said 'well there can't many in such a place' and she said, 'well I have your's'. I came to  a stop. I had no idea who this girl was and where she came from, and I couldn’t get past that point until I sorted out who she was."
The author is now five books in with one more scheduled, and I’m still not sure he has sorted out exactly who this utterly precocious and incorrigible heroine is. Nor am I sure it’s even possible.
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