In my year-end roundup of books last December, I created a special category for Alan Bradley's first Flavia deLuce mystery, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: "Best Audio Book I haven't finished listening to yet." A lame category title, admittedly, but I didn't want Bradley's first novel to go unrecognized (by me, at least). By the time I did finish it, in January 2010, I knew it would go on my best of the year list.
Bradley is a Canadian in his 70s, and Flavia is an 11-year-old chemistry fiend living in a dilapidated manor house called Buckshaw in Britain in 1950. No matter. In Flavia, Bradley has created a quirky and engaging narrator. At home, her father the philatelist is busy with his stamps, and her sisters are busy looking at themselves in the mirror (Feely) or burying their noses in a book (Daffy), and Flavia and her trusty bicycle Gladys are left to roam the lanes and fields around Bishop's Lacey at their leisure.
In the first book, the murder at the center of the story happens in Buckshaw's own cucumber patch. In the second, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, the murder is a just a bit farther afield. One day, while mooning around the graveyard at the church, pretending to be dead, Flavia comes across a beautiful woman weeping. Her name is Nialla, and she is puppeteer's assistant (and mistress) to Rupert Porson, of Porson's Puppets, whose van has broken down in Bishop's Lacey. At the urging of the vicar, Rupert and Nialla agree to perform several shows of "Jack and the Beanstalk" while their van is being fixed; Rupert, alas, does not survive both performances. From there, the story takes off, expanding to include, among other things, a secret crop grown in the midst of Gibbet Wood, the tragic death of a little boy some years earlier, and the story of a German POW who ended up in England because of his love of the Bronte sisters. Most of the main characters from the previous novel remain--Flavia's father and sisters as well as Dogger and Mrs. Mullet, who work for them at Buckshaw, along with Inspector Hewitt, with whom Flavia had previously tangled--but Bradley has expanded the circle outward so that we meet more of the residents of Bishop's Lacey--Gordon and Grace Inglesby, still mourning their lost son, Robin; Dieter Schranz, the handsome, Bronte-loving POW; land girl, Sally Straw; the absent-minded vicar and his battle-axe of a wife; and the spinster sisters who own the local tearoom, with its silver samovar named Peter the Great. And Flavia, as always, is at the center of it all.
Flavia may not always be the most plausible narrator, but she is always entertaining. I'm not sure I always believe that she's 11, but Bradley still walks the line gracefully, of what Flavia might or might not know. When she talks about Madame Bovary being one of her favorite books, it is because of the accurate portrayal of death by arsenic poisoning in the final scenes. At the same time, she feels the need to ask Dogger what "having an affair entails" because she's not quite sure of the specifics. I agree with the Material Witness blog review that one of the great joys of the first book was the sheer unexpectedness of Flavia as the narrator. The second book lacks the element of surprise, it's true, but that doesn't mean that Flavia still isnt' great company, whether she's in her chemistry lab devising a means to torment her sisters (who torment her in even crueler, though non-chemical, ways) or cozying up to various townspeople in order to wheedle information out of them or riding Gladys all over the countryside. Bradley has said that he would like to keep Flavia at 11, rather than having her age, and it's true that her status as a child allows her a freedom she would lack were she a teenager--not just the freedom to move around at will but also the ability to get away with snooping in a way that someone older couldn't. (At one point, when caught in the undertaker's back room, inspecting a dead body in a coffin for marks, Flavia pretends that she's been praying for his departed soul . . . and the undertaker believes her.)
Bradley is under contract to write 4 more Flavia deLuce novels, all of them, he says, dealing with some bygone aspect of British life. This second one shows that the first one was definitely not a fluke, and I'm only sad that we'll have to wait til next year for the third.
One final thing I should add; as with the first, I listened to this as an audio book, and it really works beautifully. Jayne Entwhistle is an excellent narrator, and the few small things that irritated me about her reading in the first book are mostly gone. (In that one, I thought, occasionally, that she made Flavia sound a bit smarmy sometimes, when Flavia was, admittedly, gloating over something or other. That's much reduced in this one.) Entwhistle flings herself into the role of Flavia with abandon, and it's a testament to both her narration and Bradley's skill as an author that Flavia comes to such mischievous, sparkling life. I think now that my best books of 2010 will have to expand to give Alan Bradley his very own category.