Thursday, June 5, 2014

Fiction | An Amateur Sleuth Grows Up

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is Alan Bradley's sixth installment in the Flavia de Luce mystery series...and yet can you believe that only about a year has passed in Flavia's world? What a year for Flavia at boring ol' Buckshaw! She's found a dead man in the cucumber patch, an electrocuted puppeteer, a bludgeoned fortune teller, an actor strangled to death by a length of film, and a dead church organist hidden in an old tomb. Flavia has solved all those mysteries, but now she's faced with the biggest of all...the case of her missing mother, Harriet.

When The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches opens, the de Luce family is waiting at the train station for the return of their long-lost matriarch, but naturally things don't go as smoothly as planned. As the train approaches, a stranger whispers into Harriet's ear and shortly after ends up dead on the tracks, pushed under the train by someone in the crowd. Wait, and why is Winston Churchill there, and what did he mean when he asked Flavia about pheasant sandwiches? The mystery that unravels for Flavia is personal this time, and it will take more than her chemical expertise and super-sleuth prowess to solve this one.

Despite our reader's history with the de Luce clan, they remain quite elusive; Flavia has always been our portal into Buckshaw, but we've usually been distracted by her 11-year-old perspective. Father is kind but distant; Daffy and Feely are just tormenting older sisters; Dogger has a troubled past but is steadfastly loyal. This is what we know, and this is all we need to know as Flavia ventures outside her inner circle to the thrills of crime in Bishop's Lacey. I think this installment was Bradley's chance to develop a story for all the little questions he's hinted at so steadily throughout the series, forcing Flavia to look inward instead of outward and answer the questions she's never asked.

It seemed only natural for Bradley to take Flavia's story further, as too much of similar plot and tone could start to feel formulaic. However, I have to admit that this is probably my least favorite in the series. Flavia is the same playful narrator, but the story is suddenly more serious. It's like an episodic TV show that suddenly turns serial; to read this one, you actually do need the background from the previous novels. This seems such an unexpected and unusual reaction, but I find Flavia more fun when the mystery has nothing to do with her; the added personal dimension adds a great deal more heft to stories that have always been witty and droll.

This is certainly a turning point in the story of Flavia de Luce. I've read this was supposedly the last in Bradley's planned six-book series on Flavia, but with another four rumored to be in the works, it sets the stage for more Flavia adventures with a new direction. I look forward to seeing what's in store for our clever young crime-solver.

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