"An eleven-year-old sleuth with a penchant for chemistry"
Set in the English countryside near the village of Bishop's Lacey in 1950, eleven year old Flavia lives with two older sisters and her father, the family factotum Dogger and the part-time housekeeper and cook Mrs. Mullet at a decaying manor home called Buckshaw. Flavia's dad passes most of his time alone, collecting stamps and listening to music. Ophelia, the eldest sister, prides herself on her appearance, and then there's Daphne, who always has her nose stuck in a book. Flavia's mother died during a mountain-climbing trip in Tibet when Flavia was still very small, but her dad manages to hold the family together even though money is tight and the home needs major repairs. As the story opens, Mrs. Mullet discovers a dead bird with an antique stamp through its beak, and shortly thereafter, Flavia discovers a dying man in the garden. After all is said and done, Mr. deLuce is arrested, and Flavia's detective career begins in order to clear him.
What makes this story work is both the character of Flavia and the author's writing. It's often hard to remember sometimes that Flavia is only eleven, and the word precocious hardly begins to describe her. Because she's 11, people tend not to pay attention to her, and she's the most scheming little thing you can imagine. Her mind never stops working, she is as relentless as a pit bull when she's on to something, and she's brilliant -- she's a master of chemistry at her tender young age, and she sees all facets of the world around her in ways adults cannot. She has this wonderful gift of being able to make pretty much anyone tell her anything. At the same time, you get little glimpses into Flavia the little girl, such as when her sisters tease her, or when she thinks about her mother. As far as the author's writing, even though his main character is this precocious 11-year old girl, he still hangs on to the realities of post-war England. Dogger, for example, suffers what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder, after suffering through the atrocities of a POW camp. The family home, Buckshaw, once a beautiful and elegant manor, has seen better days. Bradley's characterizations are excellent, each person with his or her own voice and clearly-defined place in this story. And, most importantly, this story does not devolve into the realm of "cutesy" or sickeningly sweet at all. It's fun and yet at the same time, it's intelligent.
As far as the mystery goes, the whodunit is a bit transparent, but you really won't care because this book is so well written. You end up being engrossed in the world of Bishop's Lacey and in the deLuce family, and especially in Flavia, so while the core murder mystery is good, there's so much more going on that takes you over as a reader. I can highly recommend this book to anyone -- definitely one of my favorites for this reading year.