Book Review: Name your poison with detective Flavia

Published 3:41 pm Wednesday, April 7, 2010

As for girl detection, Flavia de Luce, new kid on the literary block, out-Drews Nancy Drew. Alan Bradley, her creator, introduced Flavia last year in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. In the just released The Weed That Strings the Hangmans Bag (Delacorte Press, 2010, 358 pp), the second in a series of who-knows how many but I hope a lot, Bradley has opened new doors for girl detectives.

Precocious and undaunted, ten-year-old Flavia is an accomplished chemist, having inherited her great-great uncle Tars lab at Buckshaw, the slowly disintegrating country manor where she and her family live. Along with the completely furnished laboratory which occupies a whole floor of one of the wings of the estate, Uncle Tar left a complete Victorian library with books about chemistry which Flavia reads for entertainment. Her specialty is poison. As did many preteens in the early 1950s, Flavia keeps a scrapbook, but hers contains everything she can find about poisons and poisoners.

She is the third daughter of Haviland de Luce, widower and single parent, who loses himself in his stamp collection whenever life gets to be too much, a frequent occurrence with two teenaged daughters and one fast approaching. Her two older sisters, Ophelia Feely, 17, who plays the piano and primps, and Daphne Daffy, 13, who reads incessantly, contrive to make Flavias life miserable as only two older sisters can. They have convinced her that she is adopted, that their mother did not really die in a climbing accident, but took her own life rather than have to live with Flavia.

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Sensitive, but brilliant, Flavia uses her knowledge of poisons to get revenge on her sisters, but it also comes in handy as she gets involved in helping to solve all manner of murders and puzzling events she comes across as the travels through their English village, Bishops Lacey, on Gladys, her trusty bicycle.

In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the first novel, she doesnt have to go very far as a dead man appears in their garden. In The Weed that Strings the Hangmans Bag, the trouble once again finds her. The novel begins I was lying dead in the churchyard. (By pretending to be dead, she is trying to attract jackdaws, birds that she cannot abide, so that she can jump up and scare the living daylights out of them.) Interrupted in this gambit by loud sobbing from a neighboring slab, Flavia immediately finds herself involved in the problems of a pair of traveling puppeteers and the subsequent death of one of them during the puppet show in the parish hall.

Left to her own devices, Flavia always gets tripped up by her curiosity and her imagination as she attempts to make sense out of things that, to her mind, do not seem reasonable. Subsequently, she questions those in authority. Some adults find her endearing and appreciate her quest for the truth; those less secure find her a nuisance and a manipulator. She was even kicked out of Girl Guides, but who needs them when one is convinced that Theres something about pottering about with poisons that clarifies the mind.

Well read in literature as well as in chemistry, Flavia as easily alludes to writers such as Trollope, Shakespeare, and Tennyson, as she does to the elements of the Periodic Table.

Admittedly a bit overdramatic, I shall be upstairs, weeping at the bottom of my closet, she says when her father sends her to her room, Flavia is nevertheless a character to watch. And she is not just for girls. Even though she is talking about eleven-year-old girls, The fact is, were invisible except when we choose not to be, women of a certain age may just find a truth in that as well.

Both books are available at Lanier Library, 72 Chestnut St. Tryon. Library hours are Tuesday and Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Wednesday and Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon. 1 to 4 p.m.