Monday, 13 July 2009

Stamp collecting

This is a pleasing little murder mystery by Alan Bradbury set in rural England during the early 1950s. You've got to love Flavia de Luce. She is something akin to an 11 year old female Sherlock Holmes before he honed his deductive skills. She's brilliant but still too full of her own cleverness to spot enough of her mistakes early enough to stay out of trouble. Her head is also full of a riot of information, jostling for attention so much that the important clues sometimes get lost in the chaos.
Thinking about creating order from chaos reminds me of my own brief time as a budding philatelist (stamp collector). Stamp collecting was one of the few hobbies that was actually passed down to me from my Dad. When I was a boy he presented me with several books full of the stamps he'd collected when he was a boy. It was all pretty much disorganised, with stamps sometimes glued in or loose among the pages. There were some nice ones though. He bought me a large stamp book and told me I could sort them as I saw fit. He supplied a magnifying glass, stamp tweezers, some other tools like a perforation gauge and loads of those little paper hinges that you could stick the stamps down with without damaging them. Then mum got a job at Park Brothers as a cleaner. This was before she went into nursing. She was able to get thousands of discarded envelopes that came from all the corners of the Earth, bearing stamps both ordinary and exotic. I loved it. I don't think I really appreciated the stamps for their beauty or their rareness, what fascinated me was the whole process of categorisation and creating order out of chaos. Unfortunately this was in the late 1970s and Park Brothers eventually went up in smoke and flames during the firemen's strike. We all watched from my sister's bedroom as the conflagration raged above the terraced rows and Green Goddesses arrived one by one to do little more than try to contain it. The place burned to the ground and Park Brothers and my Mum's job were no more. There were no more stamps after that and the stamp books eventually got packed away and forgotten.
Stamp collecting is also at the heart of Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Flavia's father is very keen on them. The mystery begins when a dead snipe is found with a Penny Black pinned to its beak. Later Flavia discovers a man expiring in the cucumber patch. Her father is arrested and accused of the murder. It is up to Flavia to clear his name using her extraordinary brain, her genius for chemistry and sheer pluck. More of these books featuring Flavia and co are planned. I'll be adding them to my to-read list forthwith.

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