This is the second book about eleven-year-old Flavia De Luce, who was first introduced in “The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie”, where she put her considerable talents to work in solving a murder her father had been accused of.
In this instalment, Flavia becomes involved with a travelling puppeteer who has a show on the BBC, a shocking murder and ripples from the death of young boy, alone in the woods.
It’s a decent mystery in its own right, steeped in the atmosphere of rural England after the Second World War, but what makes it exceptional is Flavia De Luce herself.
She is a wonderfully wrought character: dauntless, clever, manipulative, and eccentric in the great English aristo tradition. She is fascinated by and skilled in making poisons. She knows how to get people to tell things they would never otherwise reveal and she is relentless in her quest to find out who did what and why.
All this makes her rather intimidating. Flavia knows this of course. At one point, when she shows too much insight into the affairs of a young woman she is helping, the young woman points it out to her:
“You are terrifying,” Nialla said. “You really are. Do you know that?” We were sitting on a slab tomb in the churchyard as I waited for the sun to dry my feverish face. Nialla put away her lipstick and rummaged in her bag for a comb. “Yes,” I said, matter-of-factly. It was true—and there was no use denying it.’
During the denouement, Flavia reveals a crucial piece of information to the Detective Inspector debriefing her. When he turns to his team, demanding to know why they didn’t know this, the response is:
“With respect, sir.” Sergeant Woolmer ventured, “it could be because we’re not Miss De Luce
For all her ferocious intellect and startling precocity, she is still an eleven-year-old girl. She is observant enough to uncover an affair but innocent enough not to be entirely sure exactly what is involved in such an undertaking.
She is also a lonely girl without enough love in her life. Her elder sisters treat her badly. Her father is distant, repressed and as obsessed with stamps as Flavia is with poisons. Her mother is dead and her only connection to her is to sit in the Rolls she owned or to ride the bike she used, which she has rechristened Gladys and sometimes treats as if it were sentient.
Flavia is not a girl who is trying to be older. Above all, she seems to be trying just to be herself which she does with great self-assurance. When she turns up late (again) and her father describes her as “Utterly unreliable:” she thinks to herself
Of course I was! It was one of the things I loved most about myself. Eleven-year-olds are supposed to be unreliable.
Flavia knows that she is willing to overstep the bounds of politeness and perhaps even decency, to get the infomation she wants but she’s reconciled to that aspect of herself. She says:
Sometimes I hated myself. But not for long.
This was a delightful read and a pleasing sequel. I will be back for more.