If Flavia de Luce, the eleven-year-old heroine of one the year's most original and refreshing books, came as a bit of a surprise to me (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was not a book I expected to enjoy: review) it was as nothing to the shock (and disruption) she caused author Alan Bradley, when she first appeared on the page of another book he was writing.
"Like Athena, who sprang fully formed and fully armed from the brow of Zeus, Flavia simply appeared," the author says, speaking from his home in British Columbia. "She walked onto the page of another book I was writing, and simply hijacked the story. I had no idea who she was or where she came from, and because of that, I resisted her. It took Flavia a while to make me shut up and listen."
More than hijacking the story, Flavia eventually forced the abandonment of the project.
"I was working on another book set in the 50s about this young woman broadcaster on an exchange programme. I was well into it - about three or four chapters - and as I introduced a main character, another detective, there was a point were he was required to go to a country house and interview this colonel," Bradley recalls.
"I got him up to the driveway and there was this girl sat on a camp stool doing something with a notebook and a pencil and he stopped and asked her what she was going and she said 'writing down number plates' and he said 'well there can't many in such a place' and she said, 'well I have your's'. I came to a stop. I had no idea who this girl was and where she came from, and I couldn’t get past that point until I sorted out who she was."
As Bradley says, Flavia is not easy to ignore. Her forceful, precocious personality utterly dominates his charming and entertaining book, as she chases murderers and thieves, tortures and teases sisters, conspires with cooks and gardeners, concocts poisonous potions in her laboratory and roams free across the countryside with a freedom and innocence that is long lost.
Bradley certainly was hooked on her, although it took the intervention of his wife to persuade him to make Flavia the centre of attention.
"I had the book on the back-burner, and then my wife heard an interview about the (CWA) debut dagger award and said 'you'd be interested in that' and of course I was but I was looking at the other story, and she said, 'don't do that one, send the stuff about the girl on the camp stool' and so I started all over again," he says.
Bradley sent off a few thousand words and was rewarded not only with the 2007 Debut Dagger - one of the judges describing the de Luce family thus: "Think the Mitfords as imagined by Dorothy L Sayers" - but shortly after a three book deal with Orion in the UK, where it was published last month as well as Doubleday in Canada (February) and Bantam in the US (May). Translations are also now in the offing and Flavia will soon have an international fan base.
One side effect of winning the dagger was that Bradley made his first visit to England, a country he had imagined sufficiently well to write an award-winning story about.
"Having not been in England my view not of crumbling houses but of an idyllic place with beautiful landscape and villages, full of interesting things and bookshops. From Canada it was a sort of Shangri-La when I dreamed about flying to England," he says.
Happily, Bradley's high expectations were fulfilled, and as early as the train ride from Gatwick Airport to central London as he passed through villages that his ex-Pat grand-parents had told him about.
"I noticed the places they had talked about and had wonderful memories of. They were not dewy-eyed ex patriots but they always had a soft spot for England," he says
The love of England was passed down through the generations.
"I have been reading about England all my life, I was taught to read at home by my sisters before kindergarten and most of the books were about England, and I read all the classics," he says, although in his writing imagination blends with history and experience. "I told someone recently that the England I write about is not England as it was, but England as it should have been."
Nobody who reads The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie will be surprised to hear that, as the Dagger judge spotted, the Golden Age of crime writing was influential.
"I was brought up on Dorothy L Sayers and Sherlock Holmes and a bit later worked my way through the detective novels of Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie , GK Chesterton and a host of others such as WJ Burley and Josephine Tey. I actually have in my library WJ Burley's copy of Taylor's Medical Jurisprudence, which I consulted in writing The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I'm still hoping to come across the works of Freeman Wills Croft and Austin Freeman, which I've never managed to locate," he says.
One of the most impressive aspects of Sweetnessis how well Bradley captures the time and recreates a distinct period in English history, a combination of post-War privation and end-of-Empire change as seen through the eyes of a young girl living a childhood that Enid Blyton would have recognised.
The detail of the age is meticulously assembled through research that covers Whittaker's Almanac, Brashaw's railway guides and Geoffrey Grigson's wild flower books. The Blyton childhood comes from the freedom that Bradley himself was afforded, growing up in Canada..
"I don't think we trust children enough any more and leave them alone enough. They are over-entertained and over-programmed. I recall being that age and one of the greatest blessings was being left to myself and you find your own interest and amusement and pursue them and that has a huge effect on the outcome of your life," he says.
I point out to Bradley that In the case of Flavia de Luce, the laissez-faire parenting of her father the Colonel leads to her developing a passion and a talent for poisoning and questioned whether this was a desirable outcome.
"The thing is they (children) can become focused intensely on something and it doesn't happen very often that they are left to focus on something, they are too diffused by their parents and society. What would the world have been like if Mozart's father had said 'don’t touch that piano you are not old enough', it requires a fine line between guiding and leaving. I don’t want to sound like an expert on child-rearing, I am not, but it seems to me (that giving children space) results in interesting people," he says.
"I’m saddened by the way in which bright children are so often squelched by our cookie-cutter society. I like to think that I would encourage Flavia’s individuality by letting her “run wild”, as Colonel de Luce is said to do by the neighbours. In many ways, and in spite of his emotional unavailability, the Colonel is the perfect parent for someone like Flavia."
Bradley, a seventy-something, talks about Flavia in the way that an affectionate and proud grand-parent might. After a career in broadcasting, and having written two works of non-fiction, including an infamous volume on Sherlock Holmes that contended that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective might have been female, Bradley has turned to fiction and suggests that Flavia has given him "a new life" after a retirement as long ago as 1993. She is less a character than she is a muse.
"I let her tell her story without me steering elsewhere. I was amazed as anyone when she opened the book talking about being locked in the closet, I was following. It’s not channeling, but tuning into the subconscious," he says. "Flavia is an amalgam of burning enthusiasm, curiosity, energy, youthful idealism, and frightening fearlessness. She’s also a very real menace to anyone who thwarts her, but fortunately, they don’t generally realize it."
To have an 11-year-old girl at the centre of a detective novel for an adult audience, you need to be totally committed to her. And Bradley is. You also need to write with invention, wit, energy and a light touch. And he does.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is as refreshing a book as I have read in a long time, it is charming, clever and funny. I sincerely hope it will bring Bradley, a charming man, the plaudits and the rewards that he deserves.