Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tween sleuth Flavia pleasingly eccentric

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FLAVIA DE LUCE, Canadian mystery author Alan Bradley's 11-year-old chemistry nerd with a passion for poisons and a taste for murder, would be easy prey today for social workers concerned about her issues, such as her admission that the sight of a corpse awakens a part of her from a deep sleep.

Fortunately for Flavia, Bradley sets his fifth Flavia de Luce mystery novel, Speaking from Among the Bones, at the beginning of the 1950s, a period in which she is quite free to retreat to her well-stocked chemistry lab to dream up new ways to poison people who displease her.

Bradley's young sleuth remains eccentric, a fount of colourful dialogue and utterly devoid of the fears one might expect to find in a tweener.

Bradley, who taught script-writing at the University of Saskatchewan, retired nearly 20 years ago to take up full-time writing. His Flavia novels, set in the English countryside, are written from his home in Malta.

Home for Flavia is Buckshaw, a rambling old mansion and estate with a quirky family history. Her father, Colonel Haviland de Luce, inherited the home from his wife, Harriet, who died 10 years before in a mountaineering accident in the Himalayas.

Why a woman would leave her three children during the Second World War to go mountain climbing in the Himalayas is one of the puzzles that remains unresolved throughout the series.

Because Harriet left no will, the colonel, a distracted philatelist who takes more comfort in his stamp collection than in his three unruly daughters, spends much of his time defending Buckshaw against the British tax collectors.

Sibling rivalry is intense, with Flavia's older sisters Ophelia (Feely), 17, and Daffy, 13, constantly looking for new ways to hurt her. Flavia simply returns to her lab to plot revenge.

Dogger, the colonel's factotum, who also lives at Buckshaw, is a man of many talents, but as Flavia notes, which ones he uses at any given time depends on how the winds are blowing through his brain, which has never fully recovered from his time in a Japanese PoW camp.

St. Tancred's, the Anglican church in the hamlet of Bishop's Lacey, is marking the 500th anniversary of Saint Tancred's death by unearthing his bones from a tomb beneath the church.

Flavia is the first to get a glimpse when the tomb is finally opened, but it isn't the bones of the old saint waiting for her; it is the body of Mr. Collicut, the church organist who had vanished from the village.

From her father's friend, Adam Tradescant Sowerby, a Flora-archeologist and private investigator, Flavia learns of the Heart of Lucifer, a magnificent diamond buried with the saint. Sowerby believes this diamond is the motive for the murder.

When the saint's bones are finally recovered, the diamond is missing, and the hunt is on for a killer or killers and a jewel thief.

There is more than a passing family resemblance to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple in the way Flavia goes about solving mysteries, charming an endless cast of eccentric characters to give up their secrets, all the while staying a couple of steps ahead of the local constabulary.

Despite these similarities, Bradley gives Flavia her own fearless personality, with a dangerous tendency to set her mouth in motion before her brain is fully engaged.

The novel ends with the colonel summoning his daughters to the drawing room where he makes a one-sentence announcement that tantalizingly hints at the possibility of a paradigm shift in the family fortunes.

Bradley, who began this series when he was 70, has already signed on for another half-dozen novels. Flavia fans will certainly wish him long life and good health.

Gordon Arnold is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 J9

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Updated on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at 3:48 PM CST: adds fact box

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