I have just finished reading A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley. This is his third book featuring 12 year old chemist Flavia de Luce. The other two are Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag.
What’s great about Flavia, is that although she is an uncommon genius in the chemistry lab, she has all the same issues that any youngest of three kids could expect- torturing by older siblings, being ignored by a distracted parent, etc.
Her bike, Gladys, is as much a character as Fatima the VW Beetle is in Grace Awakening. I like that someone else feels transportation can be a valid character. lol
Although Flavia is 12, these are not books for kids. The murders Flavia solves are rather gruesome. Nonetheless, the humour of her prepubescent attitude adds a lot of amusement to the stories. They are set in Georgian England. Flavia has a good relationship with their gardener who was a shellshocked WW I soldier and with their housekeeper Mrs. Mullet. Her mother Harriet was lost and presumed dead while mountain climbing. Her sisters are Daphne and Ophelia. They have their own unique talents. Their father has never gotten over the death of his wife, and has retreated into a world of philately.
Here is a little taste of Flavia’s voice:
My experience of cod-liver oil was vast. Much of my life had been spent fleeing the oncoming Mrs. Mullet, who, with uncorked bottle and a spoon the size of a garden spade, pursued me up and down the corridors and staircases of Buckshaw–even in my dreams.
Who in their right mind would want to swallow something that looked like discarded engine oil and was squeezed out of fish livers that had been left to rot in the sun? The stuff was used in the tannig of leather, and I couldn’t help wondering what it would do to one’s insides.
“Open up, dearie,” I could hear Mrs. Mullet calling as she trundled after me. “It’s good for you.”
“No! No!” I would shriek. “No acid! Please don’t make me drink acid!”
And it was true–I wasn’t just making this up. I had analyzed the stuff in my laboratory and found it to contain a catague of acids, among them oleic, margaric, acetic, butyric, fellic, cholic, and phosphoric, to say nothing of the oxides, calcium and sodium.”
Alan Bradley. A Red Herring without Mustard. Toronto: Doubleday. 2011 (pp.127-8)
How can you resist a character with so strong a voice? Even when the story goes just where you expect, Flavia is always a delightful surprise and there is always something interesting to learn!