Someone on the Cannonball Read book chat asked recently for recommendations for when you just can’t focus due to various life stressors. Having gone through a similar phase myself, I recommended cozy mysteries as the genre I find easy to read when I can’t concentrate on much else. I picked up The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie when I was in Pennsylvania on a family emergency, and I decided to go ahead and read the next couple in the series (#2 The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, and #3 A Red Herring without Mustard) while waiting for my fatigued brain to reset.
The Flavia de Luce Mystery series stars an 11-year old girl who lives in (as the author puts it) “a decaying, old, rambling mansion” called Buckshaw in the English countryside, post World War II. Flavia lives with her older sisters Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy), and her father Colonel de Luce. Flavia’s mother Harriet, an adventurer or sorts, disappeared while mountaineering in Tibet when Flavia was just a small child and is presumed dead.
Flavia is in many ways a typical 11-year old girl, except she has a passion for chemistry and a nose for crime. She has taken over her deceased uncle’s lab, where she performs advanced chemistry experiments, often with an eye for exacting revenge on her older sisters (who torment her endlessly), but sometimes with the intent of solving a mystery.
In the first book, Flavia overhears an argument between her father and a mysterious stranger, who later turns up dead on their crumbling estate. This turns out to be an intriguing mystery that involves rare stamps (her father being an avid philatelist) and a decades-old suicide. In addition to the family members already mentioned, author Alan Bradley introduces Inspector Hewitt, a kind but non-nonsense police inspector, Mrs. Mullett, housekeeper, cook, and source of local gossip, and Dogger, the loyal, PTSD-stricken gardener who lives and works at Buckshaw, having once saved the Colonel’s life in the war.
Let’s first get out of the way the central problem from which all cozy mystery series suffer: How many bodies is 11-year-old Flavia going to discover before the police begin to suspect a “bad seed” scenario? Ok, having noted that silliness, we can move on in peace. Throughout the series, I find myself vacillating over how much I actually like Flavia. One the one hand, her sisters are horrible to her (one scene in Red Herring, where Feely and Daffy drag Flavia into the basement and terrify her made me really uncomfortable); on the other hand, we really can’t know which came first, the sisters being bullies, or Flavia being a brat. I typically don’t go in for “precocious” children in books and movies; at times, Flavia reminded me a bit of Briony Tallis from Atonement, and we know how readers on this site feel about her! On the other hand, Flavia is smart (usually, more on that later) and suffers from a cold, distant father, a longing for a mother she never knew, and sisters who tease her by telling her that she is adopted (an obvious provocation that Flavia can’t seem to help but take seriously).
Truth be told, the development of the characters over the first three novels is more interesting to me than the mysteries themselves. The mysteries are fairly straightforward, to the point where I get exasperated when the penny drops for Flavia about something that should have been super obvious to her all along. The girl is definitely more book smart than street smart, which would be a fine bit of characterization, except that sometimes she makes deductions that even the admirable Inspector Hewitt misses, while other times she can be handed an answer on a silver platter and not see it. Let’s just say her intelligence is highly variable. My point is, the stories seem to be leading Flavia to learn more about her mother Harriet, and that angle is intriguing. In Hangman’s Bag, Flavia’s aunt reveals how much Flavia looks like her mother, which comes as a shock to her. In Red Herring, she discovers a painting of Harriet and her three daughters (Flavia as an infant). No doubt, this is a story arc that continues to be developed throughout the series, which might be enough to get me to continue reading. I do wonder whether we will learn at some point that Harriet isn’t actually dead. Bradley is very specific in describing her as having “disappeared” and being “presumed dead.” If she’s not dead though, she has some serious explaining to do.
Dogger, the faithful servant, is another curious character that Bradley is leaving open for lots of development. His role in the household seems to be linked to how well he is doing emotionally. In the first novel, he’s a gardener; by the third, he’s polishing shoes and seems to be moving up to butler status. I expect we’ll learn more about Dogger and his role in saving the Colonel’s life as the series continues. The family’s precarious financial position is another aspect that is moving more definitively to the forefront as the series progresses. The estate, which is often described as being in disrepair, actually belonged to Harriet, who disappeared/died without a will. In the 2nd book, Flavia’s father makes overtures to Flavia’s aunt in hopes she will come to the family’s aid but is rebuffed. By the third book, the Colonel is reduced to selling some of his stamp collection and the family silver. Will the family be forced out of their home? Perhaps this is how Bradley plans to get around the problem of having so many murders take place in a small corner of the English countryside? I seem to be working myself up into enough of a tizzy over these questions to want to find out!
To date there are eleven books in the Flavia de Luce series, which gives me lots more reading to do to catch up. While not great literature, they are nice distractions, especially for these exhausting times.