I’ll come right out and say it: I’m not that much for mystery stories. Now and then, sure, but I find I usually get bored by the mystery before the end. I stop caring about who done it, about the various crossed motives, red herrings and you-should-have-known-it-all-along revelations.
On the occasions when I do enjoy reading mysteries, it’s usually for something other than the mystery itself. I like Chandler for style and atmosphere, Elmore Leonard for humour, Walter Mosley for character, Phillip Kerr for setting and —
Okay, so I guess I do sometimes like mysteries. The point, I suppose, is that they need to be something more than just little puzzle boxes. I never cared much for Agatha Christie, and only found Conan Doyle interesting in the longer form. If I’m going to read a novel, there has to be something more to care about than the resolution of a riddle.
Which brings me to the sly, coy, dark, brilliant, comic and delicious novels of Alan Bradley. This guy is great. I have devoured each one of these on its release date, eaten them in fact so fast that I can’t tell you exactly who committed the crimes in question.
Nor do I care. There’s far too much else at play in Bradley’s work to be concerend with the mystery part of it. First of all, there are his expertly drawn characters. Flavia deLuce, eleven year-old genius scion of a great family lives with her cruel older sisters and bumbling, mourning father in a crumbling country estate belonging to her sainted and presumed-dead mother. She is an up-and-coming poisoner, a scientist with a rare gift for chemistry and a precocious vocabulary, yet she finds the world of dark adult motivations tantalizingly out of her grasp. Bradley draws Flavia and her family with a lighter touch than, say Charles Addams or Edward Gorey, but oh how a set of Gorey illustrations would complement these books.
The stories really are delicious to read. Flavia’s wry humour and earnest moralizing contrast both with her poignant longing for her lost mother and her sharp and malevolent plans for revenge on her sisters. Bradley is Canadian, but he sculpts a brilliantly believable bucolic post-war English millieu and his ear for language and idiom is nothing short of miraculous. You get the feeling that he must have a back door that leads into the English countryside circa 1951, and takes forays around the local villages with a notebook in hand.
Flavia’s voice is so appealing that Bradley could have her narrate a walk from greengrocer to butcher and he’d have me, but the novels are filled with a constant stream of fresh and brilliant plot twists. Bodies tumble from towers, mysterious birds are left as messages with rare stamps impaled on their beaks, fortune tellers are attacked, puppet show performances are interrupted by murder — and through it all, one almost-imperturbable eleven-year-old investigates. She is an extraordinary character. Though she shows remarkable insights into the world of chemistry and sometimes heartbreakingly foolish lack of perception regarding the emotions of the people around her, Bradley keeps her firmly above the level of caricature. She sometimes gets people, and has genuine flashes of empathy and understanding mixed with her almost Puritan judgmentalism.
It’s always a pleasure to find something new, and while the Flavia de Luce books have clear roots in everything from the Brontës to Agatha Christie, their conception is as fresh and original as anything I’ve read in years. There’s a mixture in Bradley’s writing of dark, poetic evocation with bright and hopeful enthusiasm. I’ve effused about Flavia herself, but the truth is that all of the characters — de Luces, police officers, retired librarians, old enemies, scurrilous puppeteers, kindly reverends, neighbourhood gossips, and jealous rivals — are well-drawn.
I can’t recommend these books highly enough. Everyone I’ve given them to, from my mother to my (at first reading) twelve-year-old daughter, has enjoyed them tremendously.