In Flavia de Luce, Alan Bradley has struck gold. An eleven year old amateur sleuth and scientist, Flavia is an incorrigible and precocious delight. She won me over very early in book 1, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, when she wondered about the family cook, “will nobody rid me of this turbulent pastry chef?” and I have been unwavering in my devotion since. While my love of Flavia as a character is unwavering, I am increasingly finding myself wishing she was in better books.
Shadows is the 4th in the series and is a somewhat heavy handed homage to Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d. The title is lifted from the same source (Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott) and the set up is pretty much identical. Having fallen on hard times, Flavia’s father leases their enormous country pile to a film company as a filming location. The film being shot there will star the world famous megastar Phyllis Wyvern. Before the first day of filming, Wyvern is found dead, strangled by a strip of film that has been left tied about her neck in a decorative bow.
Bradley spends a lot of time setting everything up before he can knock it all down. It’s almost half way through the book before Wyvern is dispatched with. Many characters are introduced, red herrings are scattered about, and a sub-plot regarding Flavia trying to trap Santa with birdlime (don’t ask) fights for space alongside the somewhat half hearted investigation into Wyvern’s murder.
And that, in a nutshell, is my issue with the de Luce books. So much of it is taken up with extraneous gubbins, that the murder mystery is treated as if it’s almost surplus to requirements. The identity of the guilty party is uncovered through a series of coincidences rather than anything else, and some clues are never fully solved at all. It’s all dispatched with in a rather perfunctory fashion, so Bradley can get back to Flavia being Flavia. When you’ve created a heroine as delightful as that, it’s forgivable, but for future installments, Bradley needs to tip the balance back the other way. More focus needs to go on the plot machinations, to bring it in line with the glorious cast of characters he has now established.
It wouldn’t hurt to let Flavia grow up a little. Four books in and she’s still 11 years old. If nothing else, it stretches credibility that a village as sleepy as Bishop’s Lacey could experience such a high body count in such a small space of time. But more to the point, the thought of Flavia de Luce growing and evolving is frankly a bloody marvellous one.