Most authors, I
think, would be able to tell you, almost to the second, when it was that
their protagonist first flashed, full-blown, into their minds.
Flavia de Luce came
into being in rather a peculiar way. It was like this: I was struggling away
at a new novel in which my detective, as part of a sub-plot, had just
arrived at a rather decayed country house to interview the Colonel. As he
climbed out of his car at the end of a long gravel driveway, the detective
was surprised to see a pigtailed girl of about eleven, sitting on a folding
camp-chair, writing in a notepad.
He asked her what
she was doing, and she replied, rather distantly, that she was writing down
don’t expect you get many in such an out-of-the-way place.’ he teased her.
she said, ‘I’ve got yours, haven’t I.’
I have to admit
that Flavia’s sudden (and unplanned) appearance had taken me completely by
surprise. I hadn’t the faintest idea who this girl was. She seemed to have
come out of nowhere. I knew nothing about her.
The book ground to
a halt. After a lot of long walks and much thought, I finally realized that
the only way I was going to find out was to go back to the beginning and let
this girl tell me her story in her own words – in fact, to give her a book
of her own.
Once she got
started, it seemed as if, like the Greek goddess, Athena, who sprang whole
from the forehead of Zeus, Flavia had come fully equipped: from the smallest
detail about the history of her eccentric family to her marvelous Victorian
chemistry lab, and her passion for poisons, it was all there – all of it!
remarkable was the fact that I knew at once it was going to take Flavia more
than one book to tell her story. Within a couple of days, I had roughed out
in some detail, not only the events of the first six books, but also the
broad arc of development that joined them.
When the first
fifteen pages of the first book, “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie”
won the CWA’s Debut Dagger Award in 2007, those 3000 words were all that
existed of Flavia on paper. Now all I had to do was go home and write the
By that time, the
first book and two of its successors, had already been picked up for
publication in the UK, Canada, and the US.
you might ask, “but what’s a 69 year old man doing writing about an 11 year
old girl in 1950’s England?” And it’s a fair question.
The Roman author
Seneca once said something like this: “Hang on to your youthful enthusiasms
– you’ll be able to use them better when you’re older.’ So to put it
briefly, I’m taking his advice. Seneca’s remark affected me so deeply when I
first read it in my school days, that I remember writing it down in one of
my notebooks, thinking, “Some day, I’m going to need this.”
To me, Flavia
embodies that kind of hotly burning flame of our young years: that time of
our lives when we’re just starting out: when anything – absolutely anything!
– is within our capabilities.
It seemed to me
that it would be interesting to have a murder as seen through the eyes of an
eleven year old girl. It was something that hadn’t been done much before,
and it was exciting to think of the possibilities. A girl of that age, in
the 1950’s, would have been virtually invisible. Like Sherlock Holmes’s
Baker Street Irregulars, she could go anywhere, see anything, overhear
anything, without being noticed – she would be The Invisible Girl.
I was also
intrigued by the possibilities of dealing with an unreliable narrator; one
whose motives were not always on the up-and-up.
I was never an 11
year old girl, but I was the next best thing: an 11 year old boy, and I had
the added advantage of having been close to that that age in the year the
first book is set.
In our household,
in those pre-television days, we often spent winter evenings poring over
dog-eared copies of Country Life and The Illustrated London News that had
been discarded by our local library. I can still remember the adverts for
the saloon motor-cars, the gin, the half-timbered country houses for sale,
the duck ponds on village greens. To me, it seemed like a kind of European
Although I never
had the opportunity to go there, I created my own private England in my
mind. It was a composite of Conan Doyle, cinder-track racing and public
school serials in Chums Annuals, Ronald Searle’s ‘St. Trinian’s’, Lilliput
magazine (surely one of the greatest little magazines in history), back
issues of Punch, and the detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers.
was one of the books my grandmother pressed into my eager hands when I was
about eight, and pestering her for something to read. Another was The Awful
Disclosures of Maria Monk. You can see that my grandmother was about sixty
years ahead of her time.
Needless to say, it
was profoundly gratifying to be told by one of the Debut Dagger judges that
they were convinced that the author of this anonymous first chapter had been
born in England.
My first trip to
England didn’t come until I went to London for the Dagger Awards. Within
just a couple of hours of landing at Gatwick, I was sitting at the bench of
the organ upon which George Frideric Handel premiered the music for The
Messiah, and I spent the week rambling through London churches while reading
Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor. The England that I was seeing with my eyes was
quite unlike the England I had imagined, and yet it was the same. I realized
that the differences were precisely those differences between real life, and
the simulation of real life, that we create in our detective novels.
Later, as I rattled
through the English countryside on the train, I found myself recognizing
place names that my grandparents had often mentioned, and it seemed somehow
appropriate that exactly a hundred years had passed since they said their
last farewells to beloved England. For me, it was like coming home.
Sketchy as it is,
that’s the best I can explain how Flavia de Luce and her family came into
existence, and to live at Buckshaw, their decrepit country house near
Bishop’s Lacey. Their world is a photograph of what’s inside my mind, and to
judge from early reports, what’s inside the minds of a good many other
So what it comes
down to is this: can you, at 69, and on the strength of a handful of pages,
sell a three book series for publication in twelve countries, nine languages
besides English (including Hebrew, Korean and Catalan), an audiobook
version, and a large print edition?
In my experience,
you certainly can.
SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE
by Orion Books, Jan 2009 hbk £12.99
SHOTS' review by Margaret Murphy