Eleven year old Flavia de Luce lives with her father, Colonel de Luce, and two older sisters in a stately home near a quiet English village sometime in the 1950s. Her great passion is chemistry, and she is lucky enough to have the run of her own lab, courtesy of one of her ancestors. Normally she keeps herself busy by devising revenge on her older sister by injecting her lipstick with poison ivy. However, when she late one night overhears a mysterious stranger arguing with her father, implicating Colonel the Luce in a murder, and then finds the same stranger dying in the cucumber patch the next morning, she decides that she will solve the murder, and amaze the local police with her brilliance.
Could the arrival of the redheaded stranger and his subsequent death have anything to do with the dead bird found on their doorstep a day earlier? Who ate a slice of the housekeeper's bland custard pie? Could Colonel de Luce, Flavia's beloved father, actually have helped kill a man in his youth? How are the stranger and Flavia's father connected? Will Flavia's experiment with her sister Ophelia's lipstick have a satisfying result?
Having a brilliant child as the protagonist and main narrator of your debut novel is a risky venture, but Alan Bradley pulls it off, mainly because Flavia really is extremely clever, well read, proud and quite vindictive. It's easy to understand why her older sisters get exasperated with her and occasionally team up, hogtie her and leave her in cupboards, but also delightful to see how Flavia outwits them and gets revenge by melting down their pearls or poisoning their make-up.
Riding her bicycle, questioning various villagers, using the public library and her own deducting skills, Flavia sets out to solve a murder and clear her father's name of any wrongdoing. She's fiercely loyal and very kind to the family retainer, who's shell-shocked after the war, loves her absent minded father and envies her sisters their memories of their long dead mother, who died when Flavia was just a toddler.
As far as I can tell, Alan Bradley has written at least two more Flavia de Luce mysteries, being released later this year, and I can't wait to read them. I hope we find out more about Harriet, the adventurous and clearly much missed mother, in the sequels, as well as see more of Flavia's experiments with poisons and chemicals.