While detective fiction isn't my top favourite genre, I can stand a bit of it now and then – in a wide range, from Agatha Christie to Matthew Reilly.
11-year-old detective Flavia de Luce, as written by Alan Bradley, is something else again. I have rapidly fallen in love with her.
She had me from the very first sentence I read, but I'll give you this excerpt from early in the first chapter of THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE (the first book in the series) to show you why.
The eyes, as blue as the birds in the Willow pattern, looked up into mine as if staring out from some dim and smoky past, as if there were some recognition in their depths.
And then they died.
I wish I could say my heart was stricken, but it wasn't. I wish I could say my instinct was to run away, but that would not be true. Instead, I watched in awe, savouring every detail: the fluttering fingers, the almost imperceptible bronze metallic cloudiness that appeared on the skin, as if, before my very eyes, it were being breathed upon by death.
And then the utter stillness.
I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.
How could one not adore a girl like that? She is the girl I should have wished to be, if I'd been a lot smarter and wiser than I was at 11. But I did have one thing in common with her: a singular passion from an early age. Whereas mine was (and is) poetry, Flavia's was chemistry. She was especially fascinated by poisons – and their antidotes. Flavia is tough-minded and sometimes vengeful (particularly towards the two older sisters who torment her) but far from evil. And she is good at solving murder mysteries.
Yes, these books are in the 'mystery' sub-genre, and it's fun to watch Flavia assemble the clues. She tends to be several steps ahead of the police by means it doesn't occur to them to use. On the other hand, her favourite policeman, Inspector Hewitt, usually arrives at the same place at the same time by more orthodox methods.
The stories are set in the nineteen-fifties, in an English village, and are full of cultural references I am old enough and literate enough to enjoy. Flavia is quite well and widely-read – with some unusual preferences – and was born in the same year as me.
I see from the Wikipedia entry about him that her author, Alan Bradley, was born a year earlier and was brought up with two older sisters, which no doubt gives him a lot of insight into Flavia's sibling situation. He certainly gets into the mind of an 11-year-old convincingly, and I never questioned Flavia's gender. I still don't – heck, Flavia is REAL.
My friend, author Leah Kaminsky, once said to me about reading fiction, 'I don't care about story; what I love is language.' I love language too, and think of people like Markus Zusak, Carmel Bird and Leah herself as shining examples. Also I need the story to be sufficiently interesting. But I have realised that the aspect which fascinates me most in any novel is the characters. Flavia is a winner!
I encountered her via two books mid-series which I picked up at the library. Books in this series are stand-alone enough to be read out of order, but I so loved Flavia that I had to go back and start over at the beginning, and I certainly plan to complete the rest – ten so far, but that doesn't daunt me as they are so readable.
They are designated Young Adult, I see – correctly, I think – but in my local library are also shelved with adult fiction. I like reading Young Adult books anyway; also, as a former children's librarian, I firmly believe a good book for children of any age is one that can be enjoyed by adults too. (Incidentally, another thing that endears Flavia to me is her notion that heaven is a place where the library is open eight days a week.)
I am far from her only devoted admirer. There's a fan club, and talk of a TV series, and Flavia has won Bradley several literary awards.
I'm glad to note she is still only 12 in the tenth book. It wouldn't do to have her ageing too fast!