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Anna Trench - Andy Merrills on Alan Bradley, Flavia de Luce

Not So Cosy After All?

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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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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 Famous Five (except perhaps Timmy) in more or less equal measure. Countless cries of ‘Yaroo!’ mark her passing as she careers around the neighbourhood on her beloved bicycle Gladys, and the precocity of her knowledge of chemistry, combined with a genuine wide-eyed fascination for the world beyond her home, generally charms the adults with whom she comes into contact. She bickers more or less endlessly with her two elder sisters, Ophelia (‘Feely’, a talented pian-ist starting to revel in the attentions of the various young men of the village) and Daphne (‘Daffy’, a misanthropic bibliophile, with whom I identified more strongly than I should probably admit). This squabbling takes the form of rather cruel bullying on one side, and elaborate practical jokes (frequently involving poison) on the other. By contrast, Flavia stands in awe of her morose father, a philatelist mourning his disappeared wife, and she is something of a pupil to the mysterious Dogger, Buckshaw’s gardener and general help, who keeps her education in matters medical, chemical and anthropological ticking over. As I said, this all seems terribly ‘cosy’, and these are fine books for reading over cocoa when the snow falls outside (especially I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, which is set at Christmas). But there are two crucial factors that would give even Raymond Chandler pause for thought before he sniffily turned back to Mickey Spillane. The first is the voice. The Flavia novels are utterly resonant of the disappeared – or perhaps imagined – world of England in the 1950s. If the dialogue of P. G. Wodehouse exemplifies a certain type of early twentieth-century Englishness, and Chandler himself the hard-boiled dialogue of Los Angeles in the 1940s, it is hard to fault Alan Bradley’s evocation of post-bellum England, and specifically the voice and thought patterns of a protected young girl living in this era. Take the account of intrepid exploration in A Red Herring without Mustard:

‘Anyone here? It’s me, Flavia.’ I gave a light rap with my knuckles. There was a faint glow in the rear window: the sort of glow that might be given off by a lamp turned down for the night. Suddenly, something wet and horrid and slobbering touched the side of my face. I leapt back, my arms windmilling. ‘Cheeses!’ I yelped.

Or an exchange with a suspicious character from The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag:

‘I’ll be ready in a jiff,’ I said, walking towards the WC. No one, anywhere, at any time in history, has ever stopped a female en route to the Baffins.

As far as I know, no one, anywhere, prior to Alan Bradley, has ever referred to the loo as the Baffins, but it sounds so absolutely correct as a piece of postwar slang that I plan to start using it myself forthwith. This is all the more impressive because Bradley is Canadian, and when The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was published, he had never visited Britain (he has since, to pick up an award for that first novel). But perhaps this fictional ventriloquism isn’t so surprising. After all, Raymond Chandler was a convincing enough mouthpiece of hard-boiled southern California, the spokesman for the city of fallen angels. And they probably didn’t teach him that at Dulwich College. The other really striking feature of the Flavia books is the tone of melancholy that underpins the sequence as a whole. Here Chandler’s charge against the artificiality of ‘English’ detective fiction rings particularly hollow, and obscures some of the sophistication at the heart of the novels. Although Flavia herself is too young to have any real memories of the war, and her view of the world barely acknowledges the horrors that had ended only a few years earlier, the grim events of 1939‒45 have clearly shaped her life profoundly, even if she does not always realize it. From the opening of the first book, we find that her mother Harriet is missing, presumed dead. Although the context for this is eventually explained, with thrilling implications for the young detective and her future life, a genuine sense of loss permeates the whole of Buckshaw, and in some sense stands in for the greater grief of society as a whole. Flavia’s father is clearly in deep mourning for his lost wife, but it is clear too that other issues lie behind his emotional dislocation, and his failure to engage with any of his daughters. The family’s trusty manservant Dogger, by turns gardener, aide-de-camp, tutor and confidant, serves in loco parentis for missing mother and absent father and provides strong emotional guidance for the young Flavia, but he is himself evidently suffering from profound post-traumatic stress. Flavia cannot label it as such but, like all the inhabitants of Buckshaw, she learns to work around these crippling issues, as here in I Am Half-Sick of Shadows:

Dogger was crouched in a corner, one of his quivering hands clasping the wrist of the other in front of his face. ‘Please,’ he whimpered. ‘Leave him alone!’ I shouted at his ghosts. ‘Get out of here and leave him alone!’ And then I slammed the door loudly. I stood perfectly still and waited until I could bear it no more – about ten seconds, I think – and then I said, ‘It’s all right, Dogger, they’re gone. I’ve sent them away. It’s all right.’ Dogger trembled behind his hands, his face, the colour of ashes, looking up at me unseeing. It had been months – half a year, perhaps – since he had suffered a full-blown episode of such terror, and I knew that this time it was going to take a while.

This may make things sound rather bleak, but that would be misleading. Throughout the novels, we view Buckshaw through the eyes of its youngest inhabitant. For her, the extraction of the vegetable alkaloid digitalin, the acquisition of humbugs and the uncovering of dastardly crimes are more pressing matters than the lingering melancholy of a world still recovering from a war. Hers are not meditations on broken society or a childhood lived in the aftermath of tragedy; these are ripping tales about an admirable heroine who devotes her preternatural passion for chemistry to solving devastating crimes in a picture-perfect village. They are utterly compelling reading, with a charming protagonist, but they also have a satisfyingly dark undercurrent. At this point, I should probably extol the intricacies of Bradley’s plots, simultaneously celebrating their fiendish cleverness, while deftly avoiding any spoilers along the way. But if I’m honest I have never really read detective novels for their puzzles. Or, more accur-ately, while I genuinely enjoy the puzzles as I race through the pages, I can never really remember very much about them once the book is finished. The friend who recommended Flavia to me – and who is a much more diligent reader than I am – insists that the plots are every bit as enjoyable as one could hope, and who am I to disagree with her? But for me, the pleasure in reading Alan Bradley, like P. G. Wodehouse or indeed Raymond Chandler, is in the setting, the dialogue and the prose, and here Flavia’s Buckshaw is every bit as welcoming as Bertie Wooster’s Mayfair or Philip Marlowe’s California. A final point: part of the delight of the Flavia sequence is the progression between novels. Flavia doesn’t really grow up as such (she is 11 at the end of the sixth novel, just as she is at the start of the first, having witnessed innumerable murders and assorted skulduggery over a long year), but her relations with other characters do change, and some of the puzzles of her peculiar social position begin to be solved. For that reason, it is recommended that the reader try to tackle them in order. As I write, there are also now two novels in a new sequence of Flavia novels (As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust and Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d) in which our doughty heroine leaves her native Buckshaw for her creator’s homeland of Canada. I can only imagine where else her adventures will take her.

 Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 55 © Andy Merrills 2017


About the contributor

Andy Merrills was never much of a chemist, and would be utterly awful at solving crimes. He consoles himself by teaching Ancient History at a university in the middle of England and reading too many books.

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