Once upon a time, the three of us went on a hike across England, to prove a point to everyone that we actually could do it. It was one of the best times of my life, just six weeks of nothing but hiking, but there was just one problem. If you’ve ever gone hiking, you’ll know that you have to travel as light as you possibly can, because everything is carried on your back, so no books. We thought we’d be fine with this, but as the weeks went on, we started reading everything, and I mean everything: every sign, every food packet information bit and every church leaflet we came across. We were seriously suffering from our addiction to books and spent most of our breaks talking about books. So the next time we went on a hike, we brought a book. I’ve often been the one to read out loud to the others, and during another long hiking holiday, I started reading the Flavia de Luce novels to the others. These books have a special place in out hearts now, and therefore we’ve decided to review the entire series. Maybe we can make these wonderful books a bit more known to the general public in this way, because they really are brilliant.
I have reviewed the first book in the series already, and in this review I won’t go into the setting of the series much more, as I’ve already done that. You can find the review on the first book here. But just to jog your memory a little: Flavia is the youngest of three sisters, who live at Buckshaw, their country estate. With her distant father and shell-shocked handyman Dogger, she can spend her days as she pleases, and she’s developed a special talent for chemistry after discovering an old lab at Buckshaw. The stories are set in 1950’s England and an unusual amount of corpses turn up at the little village nearby, called Bishop’s Lacey. Luckily, there’s Flavia to bud in and with her wits, charms and poisons she usually manages to solve the murder.
In this second novel, Flavia is still an eleven year old girl and therefore invisible. At the start of the book, Flavia is at the empty village church, pretending to attend her own funeral, because she is a little dramatic like that. At the graveyard however, she comes across a woman, who lies on one of the stones, crying her eyes out. As it turns out, the woman is part of the famous puppeteer party led by Rupert Porson. Her name is Nialla, and she is Rupert’s companion, though Flavia has no idea what that actually means. Some experiments on her handkerchief later, Flavia is certain however that Nialla is pregnant. When it turns out that the duo is stranded in Bishop’s Lacey due to their van breaking down, Flavia is first in line not only to help out, but also to snoop around a little.
Eventually the duo confesses that they have very little money to get their van repaired, so the vicar suggest that they put on a show at Bishop’s Lacey as payment. Flavia is ever so enthusiastic, and pretty soon the entire village is buzzing with excitement. While the puppeteer company waits, they’re camping in a field on Culverhouse Farm. This was once a great farm, but now the farmers are recluses, after the death of their young son Robin of only five years old. When Flavia visits the farm, she finds the mother, Mrs. Ingleby, sitting up in the dovecote, next to an altar she’s made for her son. This thoroughly gives Flavia the creeps, as it did me, and she starts to wonder what actually is going on at that farm. Also, it soon becomes clear to Flavia that Rupert is a bastard, that he beats his ‘lovely assistant’ regularly, and that he’s not that much of a stranger to Bishop’s Lacey as he has first led them to believe.
The puppeteers plan on performing their famous version of Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rupert even takes the time to show Flavia how the mechanics of it all work, including the climax of the show, where the dead giant falls upon the stage. However, the show doesn’t go quite according to plan, when the Jack puppet bears a striking resemblance to little Robin, who died in the village years ago. This murder was never solved, but that might just be because Flavia has never given it a go. Tragedy strikes again, when, during the second show at Bishop’s Lacey, it’s not the giant who comes crashing down on the stage, but Rupert Porson himself. This time around, Flavia has not one, but two murders to solve.
The characters really make the book, like they did with the first novel. I won’t go into the main characters as much as I did in my review of the first book, but there are some new characters added to the plot here. First there’s Nialla, the lovely assistant and the woman that Flavia has an instant fascination with. Often Flavia is drawn to strong or independent women, and she’s desperate to gain their approval in some way. I’m guessing this has a lot to do with her being a little girl without a mother, and I find this both completely understandable as well as heart breaking. Nialla may be pregnant and she may be living with an abusive man, who is also the father of her child, but she won’t be put down and never does anything without a fight. I loved her character for that. Also, I hated Rupert from the very moment he entered the story. He’s cold-hearted, unpredictable and aggressive, has very little respect for any woman and only cares about himself. I was not sorry to see him die by electrocution. Lastly, the grieving mother, Mrs. Ingleby, was incredibly frightening, but it was also a very painful experience to learn about her loss. Losing her son drove her mad with grief, but, as it turns out, there’s definitely more than meets the eye with this tiny woman.
In the last Flavia de Luce novel, we were still getting to know Flavia and her family. Now, it’s like we’ve known her for years and we know what to expect of her. Again, she doesn’t back down and is absolutely determined to solve both murders. She crawls through the woods, deceives anyone to get some information, breaks and enters once again and ruins many a good dress, and is therefore often miles ahead of the police force. At some point she even saves someone from cyanide poisoning with bird droppings, which is absolutely brilliant in my opinion. I’ve mentioned before that it’s crucial that Flavia’s eleven: the age where a girl is no longer a child, though certainly not an adult yet, and starts to form her own personality, but no one notices this yet. I loved how Flavia has the same observation in this book:
‘”You are unreliable, Flavia,” he said. “Utterly unreliable.”
Of course I was! It was one of the things I loved most about myself.
Eleven-year-olds are supposed to be unreliable. We’re past the age of being poppets: the age where people bend over and poke us in the tum with their fingers and make idiotic noises that sound like “boof-boof”—just the thought of which is enough to make me bring up my Bovril. And yet we’re still not at the age where anyone ever mistakes us for a grown-up. The fact is, we’re invisible—except when we choose not to be.’
I’ve read many reviews by people who are not only annoyed by Flavia, but also think that the character is simply too smart for an eleven year old. I can understand how people think she’s annoying: she probably is, but so was I and are most little girls who are just a little too smart for their age. We all were insufferable know-it-all’s, but don’t worry, that won’t last long. However, Flavia being impossibly smart for her age is simply not true in my opinion. Yes, she’s brilliant, but her talents mostly lie in only a few fields: chemistry, deduction and logical thought. Often, she finds it hard to understand complex emotions in people and, one of my favourite things, she understand very little of relationships. Daffy, her thirteen-year-old sister, sometimes explains little things to her, but Flavia can’t quite work out what an affair entails or why Nialla would stay with Rupert. So she decides to ask Dogger about affairs and he says to her that having an affair means that two people become better friends than one could ever imagine. Flavia is completely satisfied by this answer. I found this very endearing and a good reminder that Flavia is just a child after all.
Even though it was great to be back with Flavia, this novel was lacking in some ways. The start of the book was a bit slow. Much like the first novel, the first half of the book is still without a murder and the mystery only takes off in the second half. But with this one, the first half was a bit slow. This could be because I don’t get too enthusiastic about puppet shows, or it could be because I really did feel like Alan Bradley was dragging it out a little too long. Also, I did feel that the plot was a little thin at times, but Flavia and the characters still make it worth your while. The second half of the book, became a little strange, but in a good way. All of a sudden there’s the vicar dancing around naked in the woods, there’s a farm with a secret little weed patch out back and there’s the background story of a former German soldier with a love of the Brontë sisters. It’s up to Flavia to connect all these dots, and so she does.
Though I do have some points of critique, I didn’t enjoy this second novel any less. Let’s be fair, you’re not reading these books for the brilliant detective novels that they are, but because they are fun and cute on a hot summer afternoon. Stepping back into Flavia’s England was a little like coming home, and I can only rejoice in the fact that there are at least six more novels to follow.
There is just one thing I’d like to mention, as a little teaser for the next novels to come. Flavia is a special girl, no doubt, but her Aunt Felicity says something quite casually to her in this novel that seems to point ahead, and I can’t wait to find out what this means in the novels that are to follow. She acknowledges that Flavia is a lot like her late mother, Harriet, a rebel and a genius. This blows Flavia away, because her sisters tell her quite often that she’s adopted, just to be mean to her. But Aunt Felicity also says to her:
‘Although it may not be apparent to others, your duty will become as clear to you as if it were a white line painted down the middle of the road. You must follow it, Flavia.
Even when it leads to murder.’
If this won’t probe your curiosity for Flavia de Luce, I don’t know what will.
Red Lipstick Award: for the women Flavia adores so, but doesn’t quite understand
Alan Bradley, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Flavia de Luce #2) (New York, 2010)