Flavia’s had a hell of a year, finding murdered bodies everywhere from her own garden to the church crypt. She’s met ageing philatelists, ciné folk, fortune tellers, puppeteers, and a flora-archaeologist, all while dealing with being the youngest sister in a family whose mother disappeared when Flavia was only a baby.
“She stuck out a pale hand and touched each of them in turn on the forearm.
As she turned her head Flavia-wards, she gave me such a glare!
Feely had the knack of being able to screw one side of her face into a witchlike horror while keeping the other as sweet and demure as any maiden from Tennyson. It was, perhaps, the one thing I envied her.”
– The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley
The Dead in their Vaulted Arches is a tough book to review without giving too much away. Book five, Speaking from Among the Bones, ended with a major cliffhanger, and this book picks up with a serious plot reveal. Forgive my vagueness, then: I don’t want to ruin the emotional impact for you with spoilers. Within the first chapter, I gasped several times in surprise. In the sixth installment of the wonderfully entertaining Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley, our heroine Flavia is now nearly twelve. She’s had a hell of a year, finding murdered bodies everywhere from her own garden to the church crypt. She’s met ageing philatelists, ciné folk, fortune tellers, puppeteers, and a flora-archaeologist, all while dealing with being the youngest sister in a family whose mother disappeared when Flavia was only a baby.
Old questions are going to be answered in this book, but there’s still plenty of juicy mystery. Who is the young man who gives Flavia a garbled message and then winds up dead beneath the train? Why is Winston Churchill there, and what is his cryptic message to Flavia about? Just what were the elder de Luces up to during World War II? And what do pheasant sandwiches have to do with it all?
Previous installments of the series have focused on isolated murder mysteries while telling an overarching story. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches brings that story to the fore. With the de Luce ancestral home Buckshaw for sale, her father’s finances in ruins because her mother disappeared without leaving a will, and her sisters acting out an unending vendetta against her, Flavia faces her most personal mystery to date. In Speaking from Among the Bones, the de Luce family’s world is rocked when their father tells them that their long-missing mother is returning home. In Vaulted Arches, we find the family waiting for Harriet’s train to arrive. Harriet has been missing for ten years, and her disappearance may be about more than a mountaineering accident.
One of Bradley’s great strengths is in characterization. His quirky, fascinating secondary cast are always great, and he doesn’t disappoint here, introducing us to hotshot pilot Tristram Tallis, who bought Harriet’s beloved Gipsy Moth airplane Blithe Spirit after her disappearance. He might have more to do with the de Luce family history than he is willing to admit. We also meet long-lost de Luce cousin Lena and her daughter Undine, and Flavia’s immediate dislike of Undine, a child perhaps even more precocious than Flavia herself, is rather delightful. The more we learn about wily old Aunt Felicity and faithful valet Dogger, the more complex the family mystery becomes. These supporting characters are seen through the lens of Flavia’s sharp mind and biting wit, and really, Flavia is the star of the series. Even in dark circumstances, she’s hilarious—often without meaning to be—and she’s always ingenious, able to come at problems from unexpected angles. Situations that others deem hopeless are simply challenges for Flavia, and we get to see her at her finest here, at work in her dark room and even trying to cheat death with chemistry.
But here, more than in any previous book, Flavia is changing. She keeps hearing how much like her mother she is, which, interestingly, gives her something of an identity crisis: if she is a young version of a mother she’s never known, how can she know who she is at all? And for the first time, she catches herself when she thinks uncharitable thoughts, or keeps herself from blurting something insensitive. Flavia’s growing up, and though this is repeated at a little more often than necessary, it’s still an intriguing progression.
Because this book focuses on the mystery of Harriet’s disappearance and what her return to Buckshaw means, this is also the most emotional books in the series so far. On top of these new questions of identity, Flavia must deal with her own grief and with the difficult emotions of her elders. And at last, she must also realize what the de Luce family secrets mean for her, personally. This book marks a turning point in the series, a new direction for Flavia and perhaps a new purpose in life. While the big reveal has clearly been planned from the beginning (and I look forward to rereading the first five books knowing what I know now, to discover hidden clues), I’m not entirely sold on it. The bigness of what is discovered, and the role that Flavia is destined to play, is dangerously close to Mary Sue territory. Because I don’t want to give too much away, I won’t say more than that. With four more books planned, Bradley has the narrative space to convince me I’m wrong.
The darkest and most personal Flavia book of the series, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is also one of the best. Funny, touching, and full of twists, turns, and chemistry, it’s a satisfying conclusion to this part of the de Luce saga. I can’t wait to read on.
Four out of five blue pencils
The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley, published in Canada by Doubleday Canada, © 2014
Available at Amazon, Indigo, and fine independent bookstores everywhere via Indiebound.
A copy of this book was provided to me by Doubleday Canada in exchange for a fair review.
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