Monday, October 13, 2014

Making Crime and Chemistry Charming: Flavia de Luce

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Flavia de Luce does not go looking for trouble; it just happens to find her.  She does not mean to make the police look bad; she just cannot help that she knows more about chemistry and science than they do.  So, armed with her immense knowledge of self-taught chemistry and her dogged persistence, Flavia does what any 11 year old girl would do: she solves the crime. A creation of Canadian author Alan Bradley, Flavia and her family were first introduced in 2009'sThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a delightful, twisted mystery involving boarding schools, dead birds, and stamps. Bradley continued with Flavia's genius chemistry-centered answers to crime in The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag (2010), A Red Herring Without Mustard (2011), I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (2011), Speaking from Among the Bones (2013), and most recently, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (2014).

Growing up in a post- WW2 English village as one of the last members of a worn-out prestigious family name and ruined fortune, Flavia displays the famous hereditary de Luce genius and also a personal knack for danger.  She dabbles in poisons, daydreams about her missing beauty/genius of a mother, and avoids her remaining family: her stoically mournful father, her wistfully dramatic sister, Ophelia, and her bookish but blasé sister Daphne.  Their family is all that is left of a once proud, immensely talented family; the quirkiness and the genius of the de Luces lent itself too often into madness and/or complete detachment from the outside world.  Haunted by the specter of their adored mother and wife (who disappeared when Flavia was two) and desperate to maintain their sprawling estate almost as an homage to her, the de Luces keep to themselves, interacting with the outside world but not with each other.  With lots of free time and a fully equipped chemical lab (one ancestor was obsessed with chemistry), Flavia has no choice but to get involved in her own crime investigations, much the chagrin of the local constables.  She is the type of character that is compelling, since you do not know whether to hate her or love her.  Her age and maturity can be trying; Bradley has a firm grasp on the annoying qualities of an 11 year old.  Nonetheless, the reader cannot help but be enchanted by the precocious girl, who uses her tender age to con adults into letting her in on secrets she uses to her advantage and also uses her astonishing knowledge to find clues that the normal person would have missed.

Bradley paints a melancholic yet nostalgic picture of a tumultuous time in English history.  The great, crumbling fortunes and estates of an England long gone due to war and economic downturn are at the heart of these novels' settings.  We can see the old ways of life clashing with the upcoming, more modern way of life; these clashes often lead the comic relief, confusion, or the oft- poignant reality that life is not going to be the same anymore for the villagers of Bishop's Lacey, simply from the fast-pace times that have followed the war.  For having never visited England, Bradley paints an accurate and picturesque idea of the English countryside.  The reader is treated to the quaint comings and goings of the villagers, the wildfire of small-town gossip, and the ever-present suspicion of people who are not from Bishop's Lacy.  The villagers are well-rounded additional characters, with whom Bradley makes a revolving facet of the de Luces' lives. The colloquialisms of mid-century English villagers (and the comparison of speech to the well-educated de Luces) is simply delightful and adds to the whimsical feel of the novels.  This whimsical feel clashes fantastically with the often brutal crimes that the novels center around.  The crimes' perpetrators sometimes have a near senseless reason at the end, giving the novels a growing sense of 'times-are-changing'.  The straightforward dialogue is reminiscent of the "Golden-Age" of crime novels, reminding the reader of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  

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These are not award-winning novels.  Instead, they are colorfully crafted stories about a family barely hanging on and a little girl whose wits and intellect bring not only justice for the village but also a sense of strength in her family.  The solving of the crimes is fun and the stories that Bradley weaves are contorted and surprising.  However, the real stories are about the de Luces. The reader cannot help but be intrigued by the de Luces and their history, which pops up often throughout the series; the falling apart of what was once a great family is morbidly fascinating.  Her father is a fallen, depressed man, who cannot (perhaps will not) get over his beloved wife's death.  The mystery of Flavia's mother is a constant theme throughout, culminating in the VERY revealing, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches.  In spite of her brash independence, time and time again, Flavia is saved by her sisters, who seem to hate her, but, as Flavia discovers, love her fiercely.   They appear to be worlds away from each other, separated by their grief, their secret hopes, and their vastly differing personalities.  Yet, in the darkest and most desperate times in the books, the de Luce clan fiercely defend each other and are each other's greatest protectors.  The novels illustrate that sometimes, the differences in one's family does not matter; what matters is the undying love, respect, and admiration that binds the family together and does not falter in the face of danger or loss.  

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