by Sharon Tucker
Being the mistress of one’s own fate is beyond compare especially at age eleven. Such is the case with Alan Bradley’s sleuth, Flavia de Luce, and is apparent from the first pages of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009) through all nine novels in the series thus far. Flavia is tied up in a remote closet of their home, Buckshaw in Yorkshire, England, as the series opens. However, this only serves as an opening salvo in the epic and ongoing sibling rivalry between Flavia and her older sisters Daphne age seventeen and Ophelia aged thirteen. However, it is but an entertaining blip compared to the continuing scrapes, experiments, sleuthing, and predicaments to come. The String That Ties the Hangman’s Bag (2010) and A Red Herring Without Mustard (2011), the next books (all of which are narrated by Flavia), will convince you of the veracity of her accounts and further that their home, the decaying Buckshaw Manor in England of the 1950s, is the best place to grow up imaginable. The series is not shelved in the young adults section, but the mysteries that pop up thick and fast, will appeal to the young who understand the need to be taken seriously and especially by those older who remember what it is to know so much and yet maddeningly miss the nuances.
We soon learn in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie that all the surviving De Luces are clever in their own way. Their mother, Harriet, missing and presumed dead since Flavia was an infant, flew planes, mountaineered, and has left the family bereft since she went missing. Flavia is already a knowledgeable chemist with a flair for investigation. Daphne is a talented pianist and Ophelia has absorbed a stunning amount of English literature by any standards. Their father, Col. Haviland de Luce, the well-known philatelist, is still mourning the loss of his wife and their mother, Harriet, and has retired to his study, seemingly indifferent to its crumbling around him and to his daughters. What stirs him from his beloved stamps finally is a murder accusation and arrest setting Flavia off on her own investigation to clear their name with the help of Dogger, the De Luce factotum suffering from PTSD by way of his years in a Japanese labor camp. The evidence aligns against the colonel, and only Flavia’s journey to the preparatory school the victim and her father attended begins to give her the necessary clues to exonerate him and expose the true murderer.
The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag begins on a deliciously morbid note as Flavia lets her imagination ramble funereally while lying in the churchyard of Bishop’s Lacey. She imagines how copiously everyone will weep at her funeral and wonders if her mother will meet her in heaven wearing her mountaineering outfit or will by this time have donned heavenly white robes. Her reverie is interrupted by a woman’s sobs, and of course, Flavia investigates to find a wretched but lovely young woman who is part of the traveling puppet show stranded in Bishop’s Lacey due to car trouble. Flavia soon meets the master puppeteer who has agreed to give a performance in the village to settle the car repair bill. What happens during the performance and all that follows takes some serious sleuthing on Flavia’s part to solve so that an innocent once again escapes the hangman’s noose.
Flavia’s penchant for the lurid is stoked when a gypsy fortuneteller assures her of dark things to come as A Red Herring without Mustard opens. What follows immediately is a narrowly escaped tent fire, a quick dodge from the evil clutches of elder sister Feely, and the discovery of a new source of information for Flavia about her mother, Harriet de Luce. Naturally the universal skepticism and lack of esteem in which the Romany are held immediately appeals to Flavia, invoking what protection she can offer, but a source of new information about Harriet is golden. However, a murder, then yet another murder ruins Flavia’s plans, and the red herrings multiply at a shocking rate. (Hats off to Alan Bradley for his clever use of herrings, the fabled red ones we mystery mavens so love and mustard to sauce both in this title.) Undaunted, Flavia marshals her considerable fortunes once again to even the odds against the wrongly accused and to sift through seemingly unrelated clues to discover the murderer(s) and assist the police.
I cannot get enough of these mysteries and flounder a bit when I remember that Bradly signed on to do only ten Flavias to complete the series. The good news is that each book bristles with information and multiple threads begging closer and more careful examination that rereading is just a treat—not to mention his clever use of delightful and pertinent quotes for the wealth of English literature in his titles. The world of Flavia’s Buckshaw is at once fascinating and poignant, offering fascinating insight into how England fared after WWII and into how Flavia’s wit and intelligence saves the day. Yes, she is remarkably precocious, but imagine what you could do with the confidence that coming from a line of intelligent and wily ancestors lends you as their progeny. Oh wait; we can all claim that, can we not.
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