Raymond Chandler was not a great fan of the ‘cosy’ crime novel. In a famous essay of 1950 called ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, the novelist satirized the intricate, ingenious and implausible plots of the great English detective writers and scoffed at their emphasis upon the perfect puzzle, rather than the reality of human action. Not for him solutions that hinged on the potting of prize-winning begonias or the carefully calibrated murder with a platinum stiletto. In his view, crime writing only really came of age with Dashiell Hammett and the fast-talking, hard-punching heroes of a new American tradition, of which Chandler himself is perhaps now the best-known exponent. In view of this, I sometimes wonder what Raymond Chandler would have made of Alan Bradley and his pugnacious heroine Flavia de Luce.
On the face of it, crimes don’t get much cosier than those which appear in the first six novels of the Flavia sequence. The convention of Slightly Foxed dictates that titles are normally tucked away in a footnote, but I think it is worth savouring the delightful cadence of all six here: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag; A Red Herring without Mustard; I Am Half-Sick of Shadows; Speaking from among the Bones and The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches. To me, each of these seems to have exactly the right balance of whimsy and menace, and these are promises that are admirably fulfilled in the books that follow.
All six are set in Buckshaw, a stately home of Georgian date yet built upon an earlier Elizabethan foundation, which has been in the hands of the de Luce family throughout that period. The year is 1951, when England is still defined by such grand piles, rural churches and local pubs (at least in the pages of detective fiction). And the heroine Flavia de Luce? Flavia is a vivacious product of this postwar world, an autodidact, eagerly worrying away in her chemistry laboratory at her experiments with poisons, pottering through the nearby villages and interfering with the local gendarmerie when the dead bodies inevitably start to pile up. Oh, and she’s 11 years old. Did I forget to mention that?
At this point, you have probably decided what sort of novels these will be and, on the face of it, you would be right. Flavia is exactly the sort of prodigy who sparkles on the page, a mix of Hermione Granger, Harriet Vane and all of the F
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