A few years ago, on a flight to London, I dug into a borrowed copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I’ve since read three other mysteries starring 11-year-old sleuth (and slightly diabolical chemist) Flavia de Luce, and I picked up the latest one when it came out last week.
Flavia lives at Buckshaw, a massive, grand, decaying estate near the English village of Bishop’s Lacey, with her father and her two snooty older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne (known as “Feely” and “Daffy”, respectively). There’s also a sarcastic cook (Mrs. Mullet) and a valet-cum-gardener (Dogger, whose wartime experiences have shattered his nerves, but who is still wise and kind). The girls’ mother, Harriet, disappeared on a mountaineering trip when Flavia was quite young, and though she hardly ever admits it, Flavia is intensely lonely. Her father is kind but absent-minded, and her sisters constantly torment her (though she gives as good as she gets, if not better).
Our heroine has three passions: poison, playing pranks on her sisters, and solving mysteries. The first two dovetail quite nicely: Flavia is always experimenting in her great-uncle Tarquin’s chemistry laboratory, mixing up new and devilish concoctions to plant in Feely’s lipstick or Daffy’s chocolates. And as a convenient succession of dead bodies – including a visiting Gypsy woman and most recently the church organist – keep turning up in the village, Flavia hops on Gladys, her trusty bicycle, to offer her (not always welcome) assistance to Inspector Hewitt and the local police.
While the bucolic setting and cast of quirky village characters make fun reading for Anglophiles like me, it’s Flavia’s voice – sharp, snarky, sometimes childish and sometimes heartbreakingly wise – that makes the series a real winner. She’s an old soul, a lonely little girl, but her diabolical streak, insatiable curiosity and distinct lack of sentimentality keep her from veering into precious or pathetic territory. She’s bright and resourceful, but she does fail spectacularly sometimes, and she’s usually able to admit it, after a little time nursing her wounds.
I’m starting to wonder if the author will let her grow up (how long can she stay eleven?), but for now I’m enjoying her adventures without worrying about that too much. Flavia’s heritage definitely owes something to Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy, but her scheming mind and scientific bent are all her own.