A Field Guide to the Flavia de Luce Mystery Series
Alan Bradley, born in Ontario had two older sisters. His father left the family during Alan’s early years. Alan withdrew into the world of books, often reading in a cemetery. His award-winning Flavia de Luce Mysteries, set not in Canada, but in rural England described an eleven year old girl who shared a family situation similar to that of the author. Her mother, Harriet de Luce, heir to Buckshaw, died in a mountain climbing accident before Flavia got to know her. Flavia had two sisters, the bane of her existence. Her father, so disabled by grief seemed more interested in collecting stamps than in his family or in rescuing their home from impending bankruptcy. At times Flavia escaped her woes by lying among the gravestones, imagining her own funeral and burial.
Despite this apparent sadness Bradley’s novels have delighted readers around the world. His work, translated into most European languages, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese will soon take the form of a CBC television series. His current plans proposed to extend the Flavia de Luce Mysteries to ten books. This Field Guide relied on the first three books in the series, but may assist the uninitiated.
The Time: The first three mysteries played out during the summer of 1950.
The Household: Within Buckshaw, the disintegrating ancestral home of the de Luce family, dwelled Colonel Haviland de Luce, who married his cousin Harriet; their three daughters, Ophelia (Feely) 17, Daphne (Daffy) 13, and Flavia; Dodger, a former British POW who tends the cucumbers, keeps the hinges and locks well-oiled, and protects the Colonel and the free-spirited Flavia; Mrs. Mullet, the less than award winning cook, and Aunt Felicity, sure to be played by someone like Maggie Smith in the TV series. The Buckshaw dynamic fit somewhere between that of Downton Abbey and The Addams Family, with a touch of Arsenic and Old Lace added for flavor. One of Feely’s admirers likened the three de Luce girls to the Bronte sisters, but Flavia insists, “Compared with my life Cinderella was a spoiled brat.”
The Setting: “Bishop’s Lacey, a notable hotbed of crime,” where murder and larceny abound. Maps of the area come with book two: The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag and book three: Red Herring without Mustard. In them, Alan Bradley painted a detailed panorama of the English countryside with the quaint and dilapidated, common and aristocratic, festive and melancholy, pressed together cheek by jowl.
The Protagonist: Flavia, drummed out of the Girl Guides for “behavior unbecoming,” described herself as, “a master of the forked tongue” whose “particular passion was poison.” She actually “poisoned” Feely, but found that revenge cut both ways. Since Flavia sat front-and-center at the death of one victim, “discovered” the bodies of two others and dug-up the details of three different suspicious deaths, you have to ask yourself, was she a master criminal, a psychopath or perhaps the younger version of Miss Marple or Father Brown?
She quotes Shakespeare, Dickens and the Greek classics on almost every page; translates Latin, comments on the masterpieces of classical music and art, but shines most brightly in her delight for chemistry and chemists. Yet, for all her vast knowledge, quick wit and deductive powers, there’s no mention of schooling. Flavia de Luce avails herself of libraries. She cleverly extracts information from human and inanimate sources.
You might say that Flavia was the product of home-schooling. Feely, an accomplished pianist, when not gazing at herself in the looking-glass, exposed her sisters to concertos and symphonies on a daily basis. At each meal, Daffy read aloud the best of world literature. Flavia seemed to have absorbed every note and word, although her reading tended toward chemistry, diaries, confidential reports and library archives.
While her more proper, older sisters stayed at home wailing, during family emergencies, Flavia, wearing her well-worn dress, sensible shoes and white socks rode Gladys, her BSA bicycle, “with three speeds and a forgiving disposition” to the rescue. The bike, which once belonged to Harriet, proved to Flavia a truly “adventurous female with Dunlop tires.” It faithfully served as an appropriate steed for this eleven-year old with mousy-brown pigtails as she courageously delved for solutions.
Flavia shared her mother’s free-spirit. She feared neither dark of night, nor rising waters, nor filth, nor graveyards, nor the dead, nor intrusions into forbidden buildings. Consequently, she often took her lumps and in the words of Jacques Cousteau, she barely escaped with her life. She sought recognition, denied by her family by solving crimes before the police had a chance. Unfortunately, the constabulary often failed to appreciate her efforts.
Alan Bradley wrapped Flavia de Luce in rich language and carefully worded detail. Her mysteries entertain, educate and encourage. It surprised me that the author confessed in an interview that he didn’t know much about chemistry before he invented Flavia. Although there was one diagnostic reaction that I would take with a milligram of sodium chloride, I’m sure that Bradley and Flavia will spawn a wild enthusiasm for chemistry and in particular toxicology. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
Bradley, Alan. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. New York: Delacorte Press, 2009.
Bradley, Alan. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. New York: Delacorte Press, 2010.
Bradley, Alan. A Red Herring without Mustard. New York: Delacorte Press, 2011.
(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)