Sunday sleuth

November 8, 2009

I have a new fictional sleuth that I like very much. Her name is Flavia de Luce, she’s an amateur chemist, and she’s eleven years old. In inter-war Britain, she keeps her head about her when a dead body is found in the cucumber patch. She’s the undisputed star of Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which is very, very accomplished for a first novel. Flavia has charisma and a voice, which is pretty much all you need to sustain an at least readable mystery series. Heck, some people manage to crank out a dozen whodunits without crafting a remotely interesting or sympathetic protagonist.

I must note that Bradley falls into a very common trap for mystery authors in that, when the culprit is revealed, the air goes out of the narrative. Bradley resorts to fairly standard time-wasting tactics that allow Flavia time to run through the hows and whys of the crime, and I found myself growing increasingly impatient during that stretch. This failing is in no way specific to Bradley, and I’m having trouble thinking of more than a handful authors that evade it with regularity. Elizabeth Peters comes to mind, but she has an ensemble of quirky talkers in her Amelia Peabody novels, and I find that she never tries my patience with drawn-out, sleuth-in-peril vamping.

Still, Flavia, with her fascination with poisons and impatience with adult condescension, seems like she has real staying power. She could probably use an entourage of her own, as with Peabody, but she seems able to do a lot of heavy lifting on her own.