Alan Bradley, on Bishop’s Lacey

Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed I’m a one-time classical guitar student living for the past few years in the Isle of Man where I write and continue my researches into all things British.

Although I was born in Toronto, I grew up in a family of British expat storytellers who never tired of spinning stories about “back ’ome.” My grandmother’s house was spilling over with back issues of The Illustrated London News, Country Life, and Lilliput magazines, her bookcases bursting with bound copies of The Strand Magazine, Cornhill Magazine, and novels by authors from Warwick Deeping to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Everyone read – all the time. One of the first books my grandmother put into my hands was Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Busman’s Honeymoon.

Because of this, I formed an ideal England in my head: a sort of golden (but quickly fading) age in which ancient estates were being surrendered for taxes. And although I had never been to England, I had dreamed very often of flying there – but I inevitably woke up before the plane landed.

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Why England?

Bishop's LaceySo it was no surprise then, when I finally, at the age of 69, sat down to write my long-fantasized take on the Golden Age mystery, that Flavia de Luce leapt out of my inkpot and onto the page. Here at last was a chance to put to good use all those years of stuffing my head from books about English ecclesiastical architecture, English birds, the English landscape, English customs, and even English cooking.

Bishop's LaceyWhen The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie won the Debut Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association, I was whisked off to London and the Park Lane Hotel. Within hours of landing, I found myself sitting at the console of the organ at which George Fredric Handel had premiered the music for The Messiah. The next day, I was viewing the original manuscript of that great work at the Foundling Hospital in Coram’s Fields, just round the corner from the house where Dickens wrote Oliver Twist.

Bishop's LaceyHere was the Thames, from whose banks my grandparents made an ascent in a hot-air balloon over Victorian London, and here the rails that would take them away from home and across the seas to an unknown Canada.

It was mind-numbing. There before my dazzled eyes was today’s England, superimposed upon the land of my imagination. I have since said that it was like trying to view a 3D printed image without the glasses.

Bishop’s Lacey

Bishop's LaceyEventually, though, as my eyes became accustomed to miracles, the landscape slipped into register, and I began to construct in my mind the village of Bishop’s Lacey and its inhabitants in an ideal England: an England not as it actually was…but as it ought to have been.

Bishop's Lacey So where is Bishop’s Lacey? It is located in the exact geographical centre of the reader’s mind, although I have been assured by others that it is in Yorkshire – and also in Devonshire. Producer/director Sam Mendes told me he pictured it as being Buckinghamshire. [And I was sure Bishop’s Lacey was in the Cotswolds, which is depicted by the photos. – CF.]

Response to Flavia de Luce

Bishops's LaceyThe response to that first book – and its eight successors – has been overwhelming. The thing that astonishes me, and which I will probably never get used to, is the outpouring of love from readers in 38 countries and 36 languages, whose lives and hearts have been touched by my almost-eleven year old heroine: that, and the enthusiasm and idealism of those who take the time to write me, who range in age from 8 to 98.

Bishop's LaceyI’ve heard from people who read the Flavia books in hospital waiting rooms or aloud to dying friends and family members at hospital bedsides, from young people who have used Flavia de Luce as a model of how to handle certain situations (such as actually finding a dead body), and from those who have decided to take up the Sciences – especially Chemistry – as a profession.

Bishop's LaceyEven though it can become all-consuming, I try to respond personally to everyone who writes me. They tend to become part of my life, and I of theirs. Such generous hearts deserve at least a touching of the fingertips across the miles.

All of this has been profoundly and unexpectedly humbling, and all of it has come about because of a grandmother who cared enough to hand a hardcover mystery novel to a boy who was looking for something to read.