Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dial M for Murder and C for Chemistry

I've been reading some murder mysteries featuring a budding female scientist--Flavia de Luce.  This engaging character is eleven years old and quite precocious.  Her love is chemistry, especially the chemistry of poisons.  Here is Flavia:

"Whenever I was upset, I made for my sanctum sanctorum. Here, among the bottles and beakers, I would allow myself to be enveloped by what I thought of as the Spirit of Chemistry. Here, sometimes, I would reenact, step by step, the discoveries of the great chemists....How I gloried in the antiquated names just waiting to be plucked from its pages: Butter of Antimony...Flowers of Arsenic...'Rank poisons,' Lavoisier called them, but I reveled in the recitation of their names like a hog at a spa."

Flavia's knowledge of chemistry puts her at an advantage in disputes with her two sisters.  During one altercation, she puts her talents to work to lovingly extract urushiol, the essential oil of poison ivy, and mix it with her sister's lipstick, which she recasts using the mold for a .45 caliber bullet.  Then she patiently records what happens in her lab notebook: "Friday, 2nd of June 1950, 9:42 a.m. Subject's appearance normal but grumpy (isn't she always?) Onset may vary from 12 to 72 hours."

However, Flavia soon finds herself embroiled in a murder mystery.  She discovers a dying man half buried in the family cucumber patch and uses her knowledge of chemistry to help the local police figure out how the man died (and who murdered him).  Flavia describes her discovery:

"I wish I could say my heart was stricken, but it wasn't. I wish I could say my instinct was to run away, but that would not be true. Instead, I watched in awe, savoring every detail: the fluttering fingers, the almost imperceptible bronze metallic cloudiness that appeared on the skin, as if, before my very eyes, it were being breathed upon by death. ..And then the utter stillness. I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life."

Rather reminds me of myself at that age. I particularly remember dissecting out the hearts from fish recently caught and holding them in the palm of my hand--and timing how long each one would continue beating after being detached from its blood and nerve supplies. I suppose today I would be referred to therapists who would figure me to be a budding serial killer, rather than a budding scientist.

But I digress. The above excerpts are from the book "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" by Alan Bradley.  Yes, a man wrote this....and he did a superb job of creating a delightful and memorable female character. I was impressed with how well he conveyed Flavia's fascination with chemistry and her fearless (and dogged) pursuit of the murderer.

After reading this book, I immediately ordered the next one, "The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag". Not quite as good as the first, but still enjoyable.

If you haven't read any of the Flavia de Luce mysteries, I highly recommend them.

1 comment:

Ursula said...

Sounds interesting, thanks for the recommendation!