From the nostalgically stylish dust jacket, to the hand drawn map of Bishop’s Lacey and it’s environs, you are prepared for Golden Age detections and you’ll find echoes of the best of them here. It has puzzling plotting and a close country community, but Alan Bradley has written a book that exceeds the genre. Much of this is down to a clever choice of heroine, Flavia de Luce, an 11 year old chemist. Flavia is not one for self pity but she is a tragic character. Her mother died when she was a baby leaving the Colonel a widower and Ophelia, Daphne and Flavia motherless girls. These four struggle to function without the necessary Harriet, awkward as strangers or vitriolic as enemies, they are incapable of showing the affection they feel for each other. Harriet’s absence is ever present.
Independent, brave and stubborn, Flavia sees all with wry humour, but her youth and disposition hide things from her that we detect. We sharply see the turmoils and tragedies that are merely hazy outlines to Flavia. She is gifted at putting together the jigsaw pieces of means/motive/opportunity but the heart is hidden from her. This way Alan can have his Dundee and eat it, as the book’s light, energetic style is Flavia’s but the perceptively drawn characters are Bradley’s and real and complex.