Ah, Flavia! (I think this is how I probably began my review of the previous Alan Bradley mystery; I so adore her.) Her sixth mystery is the darkest yet, overpainted with a veneer of grief. Though more subdued that her previous exploits, she is no less delightful. Don’t start here. Start with THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE, her first adventure. While Bradley fills the new reader in on Flavia’s family and past adventures in THE DEAD IN THEIR VAULTED ARCHES, this can’t compare to reading the first five books and growing attached to and invested in Flavia.
Flavia is an unusual amateur sleuth: a precocious eleven-year-old in 1950s England, she has the run of her family’s crumbling estate, including a chemistry lab in which she happily experiments with poisons. She has a contentious relationship with her two older sisters, Daffy and Feely (Daphne and Ophelia), who remember their mother before her disappearance in Flavia’s infancy. Flavia’s delight in the lethal makes her a bit of a Wednesday Addams; she’s strangely likable despite (or perhaps because of) it. In this installment, which smacks of the closure of a final novel in a series, Flavia investigates the death of a man falling on the railroad tracks as distant relations flood her home.
She reflects on the mourning that pervades this novel: “Daffy once told me that there are approximately half a million words in the English language. With so many to choose from, you’d think that just one person, at least, could find something more original than that stupid word ‘sorry.'”
She ponders death: “He was a dear man, the vicar, but dreadfully naive, and I sometimes thought that there were certain aspects of life and death which eluded him completely. Chemistry teaches us all that can be known about corruption, and I realized with a shock that I had learned more at the altar of the Bunsen burner than at all the altars of the competition combined. Except about the soul, of course. THe only vessel in which the soul could be studied was the living human body, which made it as difficult as trying to study the soul of a Mexican jumping bean. We could learn nothing about the soul from a corpse, I had decided, after several firsthand encounters with cadavers.”
She ponders the limitations of chemistry: “Perhaps in time I shall learn the antidote to grief.”
Through all this, she pokes her nose where it isn’t wanted, ferreting out strange truths and a series-wide twist that Bradley certainly earned over the course of six books. The mystery is absorbing and well-plotted as usual, and Flavia grows up a bit more.
The Flavia de Luce novels are not classified as YA, but they would certainly be appropriate for precocious middle- or high-school children.
Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher.