Originally published March 31, 2010.
If you talk to Alan Bradley about how he created the 11-year-old protagonist for his two most recent novels -- "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" and "The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag" -- the award-winning Canadian novelist talks as if the precocious Flavia de Luce is controlling him rather than the other way around.
"I've never had a character come to me so self-contained before," Bradley said in a phone interview Friday. "Sometimes I just feel like a set of fingers for her to use."
Bradley said he had been working on another mystery novel, set in 1950 in England, that involved a completely different plot and set of characters.
"I was plugging along with it," Bradley said. "It wasn't great, but it was unrolling along as it should."
That is, until his middle-aged detective went to extract information from a local squire. That's when he came across an 11-year-old girl who was jotting down something as he walked up.
"I'm taking down license plate numbers," she told him.
"I don't expect you get many in this out of the way place," he responded.
"I have yours," she said slyly -- and completely capturing Bradley's attention, diverting him from finishing the rest of the novel and forcing him to figure out more about her story.
"It took me a few years to even find a name for her," Bradley said. "But when I did guess her name, I almost ran home and sat down at the keyboard. That's when she finally began to speak to me. 'It was as black in the closet as old blood,' she said. And that was the beginning of 'The Sweetness.'"
The critics largely have agreed with Bradley's near worshipful assessment of character. Both "The Sweetness" and "The Weed" -- the first two installments in a planned six-part series featuring Flavia de Luce -- have been described as "Lemony Snicket meets Sherlock Holmes." Bradley likewise has been heralded as "Alexander McCall Smith meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle." And Flavia has been called the new Nancy Drew -- although Young Flavia likely would find the earlier teenage detective to be far too much of a "goody two shoes."
Bradley said that unlike with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, he doesn't intend for Flavia to age over the course of the series.
"Being 11, she's on the cusp of childhood and being a teenager," Bradley said. "She might grow to be 11 and 15/16ths, but Flavia at 14 or 15 would be a totally different character than the one we are dealing with now."
Bradley also said he early on rejected the notion of placing Flavia in a "detached world" -- as with Daniel Handler's Lemony Snicket books.
"I didn't want her to be floating free of history." Bradley said. "The book that Flavia hijacked already had a lot of reality in it. One of the characters was employed by the BBC at the time of Queen Elizabeth's coronation. ... And because I was about Flavia's age in 1950, I have vivid memories of the period and can write the 1950s with firsthand experience."
For more information on Flavia de Luce, visit the character's Web site at www.flaviadeluce.com. To hear more about her exploits firsthand, come hear Bradley read at 7 p.m. today in Prairie Lights.
Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-887-5435.