Friday, February 16, 2018
The Grave's a Fine and Private Place ( a Flavia de Luce Mystery) by Alan Bradley
As I said, it is June 1952, and six months have gone by since Haviland de Luce, father of Flavia and her sisters Feely (Ophelia) and Daffy (Daphne), passed away after an illness. Though the family estate, Buckshaw, was left to Flavia, her Aunt Felicity, bully and tyrant, arrives from London and decides it is to be sold and Flavia will go to London to live with her. Given six months to mourn, Flavia, Feely, and Daffy, are on a trip planned by faithful retainer Dogger, where, after punting along a river, they land in the village of Volesthorpe, near the notorious St.-Mildred's-in-the-Marsh church. It was here that Canon Whitbread allegedly poisoned three ladies in his congregation with the communion chalice, for which he was hanged. Yes, Dogger certainly does know his Flavia, poisons are her thing.
But when Flavia fishes out the Canon's son Orlando from the river by the church, new questions arise. Flavia cleverly manages to get some stomach fluid from the corpse for later analysis before the arrival of Constable Otter. As clever as he is unfriendly, Constable Otter quickly lets her know that her help is absolutely unwanted, an attitude that causes Flavia's suspicious nature to be on guard.
Away from her own well equipped chemistry lab at Buckshaw, Flavia and Dogger find they must improvise in order to carry out the investigation into Orlando's death. Luckily, Dogger, who seems to have an abundance of all kinds of knowledge, also turns out to be a genius at using whatever is at hand. I loved how Dogger made an improvised microscope (pg 85), especially clever and amusing after Otter condescendingly manplained to Flavia what a microscope is (pg 45). Still, Flavia is disappointed that Orlando wasn't poisoned, but she has become more and more aware that there are, nevertheless, sinister things under foot in Volesthorpe, and she is determined to get to the bottom of them all. And, as it turns out, there is plenty to get to the bottom of.
When I first began reading The Grave's a Fine and Private Place, I was feeling a little disappointed. It definitely has a slightly different feel to it than the previous 8 books. But as I got further into the story, I began to enjoy it as much as the other Flavia books, but it never lost the feeling of difference. I've thought about it and this is what I think:
The Grave's a Fine and Private Place is the next to the last Flavia de Luce mystery and, at 12, Flavia is entering adolescence. No longer a child, she is maturing and it shows - kudos to Bradley for portraying the subtle ways in which this happens. I realized it had actually began in book 8, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd after Flavia returned to Buckshaw from boarding school in Canada. Most notable is the way she now sees Dogger as more of an person in his own right and an equal and less as a servant, and there are changes in her relationship with her sisters, particularly Daffy, whose literary passions turn out to be pretty useful for solving murders. Don't get me wrong, Flavia is still as enthusiastic about solving murders, performing chemical experiments and learning about poisons as ever she was, but now her life is expanding.
Being away from the confines of Buckshaw and Bishop's Lacy also allows Bradley to bring in more varied but no less eccentric characters. There is Orlando Whitbread's mentor Poppy Mandrill, former actress now confined to a wheelchair; Arven Palmer, the landlord of the Oak and Pheasant and his wife, Greta Palmer; three roustabouts from the traveling Shadrach's Circus and Menagerie as well as the proprietor, Mrs. "Dreadnought" Dandyman; the village's undertaker F. T. Nightingale, whose son Hob befriends Flavia; and last but not least, Dogger's old friend (?) Claire Tetlock - each with their own secrets to be uncovered.
Like most of Bradley's plots, this one will require you to suspend your disbelief, not because he has delved into fantasy, just into things improbable, exciting but improbable. But is wouldn't be a Flavia de Luce mystery if the improbable were left out, would it?- then it would just be a book about a girl who likes chemistry. If you love a little off the wall, somewhat noir mystery with unconventional characters, this is the book/series for you.
This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley