I have a colleague, a man in his early 60s, who confesses that he is in love with 10-year-old Flavia de Luce.
His passion for such a young girl might seem wrong, if not outright creepy, until you know that Flavia is a fictional character and that I, along with thousands of other readers, share his inordinate fondness for this coltish creature who seems to have escaped the boundaries of paper and ink.
Flavia is the creation of Alan Bradley and the star of his two mystery novels, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag. The novels, set in the idyllic English village of Bishop's Lacey, are as delightful and as clever as the titles suggest.
In the most recent book, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, Flavia sets out to solve the murder of a puppeteer. His death seems tangled up with a local farmer growing cannabis and the mysterious death of a five-year-old a few years earlier. There's also a former German prisoner of war lingering about the village for good measure.
The plots are engaging and Bradley's depiction of the residents of Bishop Lacey and its customs are spot on, but -- make no mistake -- Flavia is the star attraction. She is equally adept at detection and chemistry, as knowledgeable as she is fond of all manner of poisons, and dashes about Bishop Lacey's on her bicycle named Gladys.
She's precocious enough to enjoy dazzling the local police constable with her explanation of how she solved the murder and precious enough to doctor the chocolates given to her sister by an admirer with hydrogen sulfide, which will unleash the stink of rotten eggs when the candy is consumed.
Books don't come more enjoyable than Bradley's and characters more vivid than Flavia de Luce. We had are all cheered to know that the third book in the series, A Red Herring Without Mustard, can be expected in 2011.