It’s 1950 and Christmas has arrived in England, but instead of decking the halls of their sprawling family home, the penniless de Luces find themselves making way for a famous film director, who has offered them a handsome and much-needed sum of money to use the estate for his latest picture. Flavia, the precocious youngest de Luce daughter, is determined not to get swept up in the glitz and glamour like her sisters—she’s conducting a very important chemistry experiment on Christmas Eve to find out if Father Christmas really exists. All of that changes when the star of the film, Phyllis Wyvern, singles Flavia out for her history of assisting the police in certain high profile murder investigations. Little does Flavia know that she’s about to become embroiled in another one. One where almost everyone in town is a suspect, including Flavia herself.
I’m a little surprised that I’ve never read an Alan Bradley book before, particularly because the Flavia de Luce books have come up on my recommendation queue several times over the years, and so many of my friends raved about The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Needless to say, I am going to remedy that right away, because I absolutely adored this book. It reminded me so much of the classic mysteries of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, where the case is far from simple, but it’s handled simply and left to unravel without a hundred crazy twists (although there are a few). Much as I love suspenseful thrillers, it was refreshing to find a modern author who writes like this.
There’s a certain amount of whimsy in the book, and it comes from its wonderful heroine. You can tell that Flavia takes herself very seriously, and she states her opinions with a certainty that only an eleven-year-old can possess. Even though she’s smart and knows how to mix up a chemical compound that will essentially glue Santa to the chimney, the author never forgets that she’s a child who occasionally want to use her knowledge for childish things, like getting revenge for her sisters’ teasing by slipping a little something in their tea to make them nauseous (okay, so it’s a little macabre, but you know you’d have had the same train of thought at that age). The only thing about Flavia that gave me pause was that she noticed glaring things about the crime scene that the police did not. I’m not sure if this ability is explained in previous books, and, if I’m honest, it didn’t bother me all that much in the end, but I can see first time readers taking issue with that.
The setting only added to the whimsy, and in the best possible way. From the first page, I was transported to freezing, crumbling Buckshaw, and Bradley was very successful in creating the atmosphere of a small country town at Christmas. The household staff and village regulars added wonderful color, and I hope future books acknowledge why Flavia’s older sisters harbor such resentment towards her and reveal more about Dogger’s past.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a great, old-fashioned mystery, and I look forward to reading it again around the holidays.