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Monday, April 20, 2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

Delacorte Press, 416 pages, $25

Flavia de Luce is twelve years old and has been “banished” from her home in England to the wilds of Toronto, Canada. In the world of this perspicacious, perceptive, precocious, preternatural preadolescent, science rules. Dead (preferably murdered) bodies and unmasking their killers are what she lives for. But she is still only twelve, so some things are beyond her ken — but crime is not one of them.

“As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust” is the seventh in this disarming series set in 1950s rural England (and now Canada). The books could probably be labeled “young adult,” but certainly lots of grown-up customers of MBTB enjoyed them (including moi). The victims are mostly adults, but the bloodshed is mostly low key.

Flavia is the youngest daughter of an impoverished aristocrat. Her mother died many years ago, and her two older sisters delight in saying nasty things to her, and she, in turn, treasures the pranks she pulls on them. Flavia feels disconnected from and misunderstood by her family, but when an opportunity to attend her mother’s old alma mater in Toronto arises, she still balks at leaving the only (dysfunctional) family she knows.

After a less-than-auspicious ocean crossing chaperoned by the odd couple of Dr. Rainsmith (GP) and his wife, Dr. Rainsmith (coroner), Flavia is welcomed by a girls’ academy straight out of “The Addams Family.” An acquitted murder suspect for a chemistry teacher, a secretive and fractious headmistress, missing boarding students, a laundry that may not be a laundry, and the strangest people using the Nide phrase “pheasant sandwiches.” (As we learned in the last book — and this seems to be where the future books are heading — the Nide members are secret agents who are charged with the preservation of the free world. Flavia’s mother was a member, and it appears that Flavia is being recruited as well, even though she is only twelve.)

A note here about Flavia's dysfunctional family: Although she and her sisters appear to be at perpetual war, in fact Flavia (as the narrator) often refers to nice memories of things her sisters have said or read to her.

Alan Bradley manages to express the mind of an eccentric twelve-year-old very well. The books have been gradually turning into young adult, secret agent books from the original cozy English village mysteries. Whatever the future holds, Bradley entertains.

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