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Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

Delacorte Press, 336 pages, $24 (release date 1/14/14)

What a satisfying sixth book in the Flavia de Luce series this is! The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is a watershed in the series in many ways. For those of you who are already fans: We learn more about the past of 11-year-old Flavia’s parents. The series also transitions into a more YA vibe, with more fantastic elements promised on the horizon. Up until now, Flavia has been a precocious youngster with a dysfunctional family, whose hobby has been poisons and assisting the local police force with murders.

For those of you who are coming to Flavia for the first time: For heaven’s sake, don’t start with this book! (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first.)

However, here’s some background. In 1951 England, in the sleepy village of Bishop’s Lacy, where nothing ever happens, except when it does, lives a sad family, the de Luces, on their decaying estate, Buckshaw. The three daughters, of whom Flavia is the youngest, have little in common. Flavia feels herself subjected to outright hostility by her teenaged sisters, and she retaliates in unique and clever (but childish) ways. Papa de Luce has been depressed for years, ever since his return from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. It did not help him to learn that, during his absence, his wife, Harriet, had disappeared, and is presumed dead, in Tibet. Flavia was one year old when that happened and she has no memory of her mother. She envies her sister’s recollections, however patchy.

Characters flock into this book. There’s a lot going on, but Canadian author Alan Bradley does a masterful job of keeping the story on the straight and narrow. Even when I thought he had forgotten to deal with a plot line, there he was eventually cleaning it up satisfactorily.

Bradley ended his last book, Speaking From Among the Bones, with a cliffhanger. The long-lost Harriet had been found! Flavia’s hodgepodge of emotions narrows to just one, horror, when a strange man tries to talk to her at the train station where Flavia and her family have gone to meet Harriet.  “‘Tell your father that the Gamekeeper is in jeopardy…Tell him that the Nide is under…,’” he gasps before he is interrupted. Later it’s too late to find out what he means, as the stranger falls — or is pushed — into the path of the moving train.

Flavia receives the greatest puzzle of her young life. There are forces at work greater than are contained in her little village of Bishop’s Lacey. Among the onslaught of people who descend on Buckshaw are these interesting characters: Tristram Tallis, who had bought Harriet’s airplane years ago and is now returning it to Buckshaw (and how does Mrs. Mullet, the housekeeper, know him?); Adam Sowerby, a florarchaeologist and private detective; cousins Lena and Undine de Luce, of the Cornwall de Luces, a strange mother-and-daughter pair; and Winston Churchill, who, in a cameo appearance, utters the strange phrase, “pheasant sandwiches,” to Flavia.

Bradley extends Flavia’s world to encompass World War II and its impact on Buckshaw. On the cusp of her twelfth birthday, Flavia puts away a lot of her childish ways and thinking — but not before a spectacular foray into Frankensteinian reanimation science (“a monumental injection of ATP combined with a similar dosage of carboxylase hydrochloride,” followed by Professor Kano’s knuckle blow to the second lumbar vertebra).

Bradley mixes pathos and humor, witty remarks and philosophical meditation, anger and forgiveness, and produces a genuinely touching and interesting work.

And, of course, there’s a cliffhanger at the end.

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