Eleven year-old Flavia de Luce has a single overriding passion: chemistry. Happily her ancestral home happens to have a well-stocked laboratory to hand (thanks to eccentric Uncle Tarquin), so that when she discovers a body in the cucumber patch, she is immediately able to embark on an investigation.
What starts as an effort to put the senior police officer in his place (he has asked her to rustle up some tea for his team, a demand which quite naturally puts her back up) becomes more urgent when her father is arrested for murder.
Alan Bradley's debut crime novel is a lovely piece of work. From the first page, Flavia's voice is sharp and precocious, and flashes of pure 11 year-old malice vie with the wisdom acquired through an extensive self-education. With her older sisters she's a near monster, but her position as youngest sibling in a motherless family has taught her survival, and her sangfroid born out of their shared reluctance to acknowledge familial affection stands her in good stead when she falls into the hands of a ruthless murderer. Her prickly relationship with Inspector Hewitt is straight from the Golden Age of crime fiction, while her deduction of the murder method - necessary because the Inspector sees no need to share the post mortem findings with a small girl, adds a nice touch. So too the choice of murder weapon, very much of its period. As for the chapter at the end, the one-where-all is-explained, both atmosphere and exposition were worthy of Agatha Christie.
A couple of minor quibbles, I suppose: there are a few Canadian idioms sprinkled through the text, which as a copy editor I would have wanted to winkle out before publication, but there aren't enough such pinpricks to irritate. I had doubts about a simile involving hamsters: not common as pets in 1950, and the hamster wheel had only just been invented (first recorded 1949; this is the sort of thing watchers of period drama love to write to the BBC about!) Oh, and I rather doubt that poison ivy would be found in a garden in northern England, but there are ornamental plants that would achieve a similar effect, so Flavia wouldn’t have had to look far to accomplish her purpose.
Overall, though, this is sheer delight - as a first read for 2010 it sets such an unbelievably high standard that I fear things can only go downhill from here. A final thought: don't be fooled by the age of the protagonist into thinking this is a children's book. Yes, lots of young adults will love it, and it fits excellently into the now fashionable crossover category, but this is essentially an adult novel which happens to have a young narrator. I just can’t wait for the next one; due out later this year (15 April in the UK) it is to be called The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, and I have to admit that, against all resolve not to buy too many books, I have pre-ordered it.