There are a lot of 11-year-old girl heroes with pluck and wit, but Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce stands out. While she is superlative in many ways, her vulnerabilities are of as much value to the plot, and none of it feels contrived; which is key, isn’t it? Even if Flavia survives the latest murder-mystery, she might not emotionally. And that is what a Flavia de Luce novel is about: her character, not just the corpse she inevitably stumbles upon.
Was my life always to be like this? I wondered. Was it going to go, forever, in an instant, from sunshine to shadow? From pandemonium to loneliness? From fierce anger to a fiercer kind of love? (292)
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is book 4 in this delectable series about a young girl in 1950 England with a gift for chemistry, and poisons in particular. Since book one, she has discovered an interest in sleuthing as well. Like all the previous books, murder comes to Bishop’s Lacey even as Flavia’s familial dramas continue their own shadowy descent.
It’s Christmastime, and the precocious Flavia de Luce—an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry and a penchant for crime-solving—is tucked away in her laboratory, whipping up a concoction to ensnare Saint Nick. But she is soon distracted when a film crew arrives at Buckshaw, the de Luces’ decaying English estate, to shoot a movie starring the famed Phyllis Wyvern. Amid a raging blizzard, the entire village of Bishop’s Lacey gathers at Buckshaw to watch Wyvern perform, yet nobody is prepared for the evening’s shocking conclusion: a body found, past midnight, strangled to death with a length of film. But who among the assembled guests would stage such a chilling scene? As the storm worsens and the list of suspects grows, Flavia must use every ounce of sly wit at her disposal to ferret out a killer hidden in plain sight. ~publisher’s comments.
[Yes, Agatha Christie’s name surfaces within the pages and not just the mind.] The part not to be lost in the above synopsis is Flavia’s dastardly plan to ensnare Father Christmas. It isn’t just a cute aside, because really, it is one remnant of childhood she really needs.
Would chemistry put paid to Christmas? Or would I, tomorrow morning, find a fat, infuriated elf caught fast and cursing among the chimney pots?
I must admit that part of me was hoping for the legend.
There were times when I felt as if I were standing astride a cold ocean–one foot in the New World and one foot in the Old. As they drifted relentlessly apart, I was in danger of being torn up the middle. (163)
Bradley is keen on placing Flavia in that tenuous spot between childhood and greater sophistication. He chose a perfect age. Flavia is both capable of both absolute genius and absolute ignorance. Those walls that come up in trying to decipher adult dynamics (read sexual relationships) are ever amusing. What is less amusing is how deft she is at a crime scene and in a laboratory while yet still remaining such a vulnerable figure. She hasn’t a mother, and her father is always just out of reach. Her two older sisters are a source of torment–really, it is painful. I am glad she has Dogger, the servant and friend of her father’s, because she really does need some adult to care for her, and for whom she could show care in return. And not only because she is 11 and human, but because she is becoming worn.
[After placing dry paper too close to the bulb for better light, and after catching her shoes on fire stomping out flames in the cupboard beneath the stairs:]
I was pulling on my singed sweater and scraping the toes of my smoking shoes on the floorboards when the kitchen door opened and Dogger appeared.
He looked at me closely without saying a word.
“Unforeseen chemical reaction,” I said. (228)
Dogger rarely says a word. And he has remained a bit of a mystery. We learn more in book 4; that is, more clues come to light. The relationships between many a person are given greater lighting–and in turn, greater shadow. Mysteries abide. Just who is Dogger, really? How is it the Vicar and the Colonel are friends? A key one: Why do Flavia’s sister’s hater her so vehemently, and how far with their warfare extend?
of note: I must audibly sigh over the Dogger/Flavia dynamics as well as Flavia/Inspector Hewitt. The very particular word choices that relay Flavia’s sense of the macabre continually delight. And her geeking out over chemistry?–so lovely. Her struggle with her father and her sisters also continues to wound. I really, really love what Bradley does in his Flavia books.
Carl V. at “Stainless Steel Droppings” has excellent reviews of books 1-3, and will have 4, not doubt. Use the “search” box, and go ahead and use a “subscribe” prompt while you are at it.
a sweet, very brief interview via Book Page