Author Alan Bradley reads at Prairie Lights


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Alan Bradley couldn’t have imagined a character like Flavia de Luce.

The precocious 11-year-old was first realized in another book he was writing. Flavia “demanded a book of her own, and [he] finally listened to her,” he said. Set in 1950s England, she expresses an affinity for chemistry and poisons, which she fully utilizes in her home’s abandoned laboratory.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie won him the Début Dagger Award from the British Crimewriter’s Association in 2007. The second installment, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, continues to follow Flavia de Luce and her unfettered sense of curiosity to an unexplained death in a traveling puppet show. The series follows a large arc that will ultimately take six books to complete, but each edition has its own sense of independence from the project as a whole.

Bradley will indulge fans and newcomers alike in de Luce’s world in his reading at 7 p.m. today in Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St. Admission is free.

Growing up in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, he knew writing was what he wanted to do when he was younger than the character that defines his novels. Challenged by his sister to write a book (he believed anyone could), he wrote one paragraph, which sent his sister into hysterics, falling on the floor laughing.

“I knew then that writing was not an easy life,” Bradley said. “It took 50 years before my first book was published.”

His works are now making people laugh in the best way. Paul Ingram of Prairie Lights said the Flavia de Luce series is among the funniest he has ever read, primarily because of the protagonist’s approach to the mysteries she investigates.

“Once you start reading, you really get a kick out of it,” Ingram said. “If Flavia finds a dead body, she doesn’t freak out — she thinks, ‘Oh boy, this will be interesting.’ ”

In writing the series, the one thing that propels Bradley is his efforts to “listen” to Flavia and record her thoughts. This, he said, is equally easy and complicated.

To have such a young girl be upfront in an adult novel is a rare occurrence, but one can perhaps liken it to Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: a girl with a strong, unique personality providing her perspective on the complex world around her.

When it comes to the Flavia de Luce series and Bradley’s unceasing efforts to produce the best product he can, the characters are given the room and freedom to develop, along with the story.

“Alan is a master of character and plot, and these are not easy mysteries to figure out,” Ingram said. “I think this is why readers will like the characters all the way through.”

Though she is only 11, Bradley said, he has heard from readers ranging from ages 8 to 95 who can find some form of relatable quality in de Luce’s words and actions. For him, meeting those fans is one of the most rewarding aspects of his writing career.

“They always turn out to be remarkable people,” he said. “On the same wavelength, I suppose.”

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