Each year since 2009 I’ve looked forward to spending a few hours in the company of one of my favorite people. Her adventurous spirit, her daring and her sheer self-taught genius as a chemist (not to mention a breadth of knowledge of music and books that easily puts me to shame) never fails to astound me. That she is also mischievous, mercurial, and underneath her rather frayed veneer of independence lies a warm and empathic soul that is deeply connected to the people around her, even when she loves to hate them, makes her even more endearing.
I am of course, attempting to describe the eponymous heroine and narrator of Alan Bradley’s six Flavia de Luce mysteries, but as with all of the best eccentrics in fiction, she cannot be reduced to a single paragraph. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the newest mystery, opens as Flavia, now nearly twelve, and her family prepare for the imminent return of her mother, Harriet, who was lost in a climbing accident in Tibet before Flavia’s second birthday. At the station awaiting Harriet’s special train, Flavia is asked by no less a personage than Winston Churchill if she has developed a taste for pheasant sandwiches. Then a stranger, who had just warned her of imminent danger to someone known only as the Gatekeeper, falls, or is pushed, to his death beneath a train. What does all this mean? Why is Churchill even there? And, what should Flavia make of the film footage of her parents that she discovers in the attic and, using an improvised darkroom, develops? Throw in a visiting pilot who takes Flavia up for her first airplane ride, the reappearance of a compatriot from Flavia’s last detective triumph, some omnipresent sibling rivalry, and Flavia’s ambition to outdo Victor Frankenstein and this romp through post-WWII village life, begins quickly and moves in directions I would never have imagined.
It’s a good thing that Bradley creates an atmosphere reminiscent of an Ealing Studios comedy in this entry as the body count at Buckshaw, the de Luce’s crumbling, about to be sold, family seat, was getting a bit steep. Five, now six, murders in a single village in less than a year strains credulity, though verisimilitude is not Bradley’s mission. Rather it is Flavia, who, if not a realistic character is certainly one of detective fiction’s most appealing inventions, holds the author and the reader in her thrall. With all of the tragic comic machinations of the plot, we come to the end of Flavia’s sixth outing with her firmly on the road to a new environment and new adventures.
What makes this series a continuing must read for me is seeing Flavia grow and change. Despite her undeniable brilliance, she is still only twelve, and she is only slowly developing an emotional understanding of the relationships of the people around her. It is touching to see in a child who is learning that her family, while damaged in many regards, is one where actions are largely fueled by love, even if it is not openly expressed. This is the emotional core that will keep me coming back and if you aren’t already hooked, you should be.
The only sad part about reading this so early in the year? I need to wait twelve months to see what happens next.