The year is 1950, and you are a 10 year-old girl who lives in the great house of the village. Your favorite spot is a Victorian chemistry lab, assembled by an eccentric ancestor, and you are the only person who enters there. You do things like distill poison ivy to irritate (literally) your vain oldest sister. You have a passion for logic, science, and poison. You keep finding dead people.
Your name is Flavia de Luce.
Flavia stars in three novels by Alan Bradley, a former electrical engineer who worked in television. The whole family has its oddities. The mother and heiress of Buckshaw, the family estate, died climbing in the Himalayas during Flavia's infancy. She left no will, leaving the family in uncertain financial status. The father's only remaining passion, stamps, occupies him. The two oldest girls are more conventional. The elder de Luce, Ophelia (aka Feely), plays piano and enjoys watching her reflection. Daphne (or Daffy), in the middle loves to read and plans to write novels.
Flavia's character can seem very modern. She has claimed her mother's bicycle and named it Gladys. She and the bike cruise the countryside, having adventures and solving mysteries, like the dead folks that keep turning up when Flavia hangs about. Flavia can also be wise beyond her years.
The latest novel, A Red Herring Without Mustard, came out in April. Here she talks about her chemistry lab, hidden in a wing of the Buckshaw that only she enters:
Stepping through the door into my laboratory was like gaining sanctuary in a quiet church: The rows of bottled chemicals were my stained-glass windows, the chemical bench my altar. Chemistry has more gods than Mount Olympus, and here in my solitude I could pray in peace to the greatest of them: Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (who, when he found a young assistant in a linen draper's shop surreptitiously reading a chemistry text which she kept hidden under the counter, promptly dumped his fiancee and married the girl); William Perkin (who had found a way of making purple dye for the robes of emperors without using the spit of mollusks); and Carl Wilhelm Scheele, who probably discovered oxygen, and - more thrilling even than that - hydrogen cyanide, my personal pick as the last word in poisons.
Propylamine (which had been discovered by the great French chemist Jean-Baptiste Dumas) is the third of the series of alcohol radicals - which might sound like boring stuff indeed, until your consider this: When you take one of the alcohols and heat it with ammonia, a remarkable transformation takes place. It's like a game of atomic musical chairs in which the hydrogen that helps form the ammonia has one or more of its chairs (atoms, actually) taken by the radicals of the alcohol. Depending upon when and where the music stops, a number of new products, called amines, may be formed.
With a bit of patience and a Bunsen burner, some truly foul odors can be generated in the laboratory. In 1889, for instance, the entire city of Freiburg, in Germany, had to be evacuated when chemists let a bit of thioacetone escape. It was said that people even miles away were sickened by the odor, and that horses fainted in the streets.
How I wish I had been there to see it!
Obviously, I love this precocious girl. She can be sweet, especially when she ponders her missing mother. She has a mean streak, though, and will use all of her skills to get revenge, especially on her conniving sisters.
I will end with one last passage from the latest book:
Thinking and prayer are much the same thing anyway, when you stop to think about it - if that makes any sense. Prayer goes up and thought comes down - or so it seems. As far as I can tell, that's the only difference.
I thought about this as I walked across the fields to Buckshaw. Thinking about Brookie Harewood - and who killed him, and why - was really just another way of praying for his soul, wasn't it?
If this was true, I had just established a direct link between Christian charity and criminal investigation. I could hardly wait to tell the vicar!
Guess we should add theologian to Flavia's accomplishments.
Book four's publication is set for November 1.