Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels continue with ‘As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust’

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First Posted: 2/9/2015

If you’re a fan of period mysteries and have never heard of Alan Bradley’s delightful Flavia de Luce novels, do yourself a favor and pick up “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,” the first in the series. Flavia is an eleven year old girl living in her crumbling ancestral home in the English countryside in 1950. She has two cruel older sisters, a distant father and a (presumed) dead mother, who went missing when she was only a baby. Left to her own devices much of the time, Flavia has developed a keen love of chemistry, particularly the creation of poisons. She also frequently stumbles into mysteries and, by the age of twelve, has seen more dead bodies than most detectives. Flavia typically solves her mystery before the police do, which doesn’t exactly endear her with them.

Flavia is headstrong, brilliant and enthusiastic. Of her three sisters, she is the most like her mother, a fact which defined her destiny at the end of the last book. Up until this point, the series took place in Flavia’s home, Buckshaw, in the town of Bishop’s Lacey. Riddled with quirky characters, the town became a familiar and welcoming place to visit with each new novel. However, Flavia was always meant for something bigger than her tiny English village. In the last novel, “The Dead in their Vaulted Arches,” she learns that her mother was involved in an organization of spies (possibly…the exact purpose of the group is still murky to both Flavia and the audience) and Flavia is expected to take her place among their number when she is older.

Even though this is the seventh book in the series, Bradley’s mysteries are still as engaging as ever. To some extent, the series has gotten a reboot. Flavia was removed from her familiar life in Bishop’s Lacey and sent overseas to Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, a school which secretly trains some of their students to be spies (maybe?). Flavia isn’t even at the Academy for one night before a decapitated, charred skeleton falls out of her fireplace. This sets the stage for a hunt for the identity of the victim which ends up tying in with the mysterious disappearance of some of Flavia’s new classmates.

Flavia may be a hard sell for some readers. She’s a little girl but this is definitely an adult series. Personally, I find Flavia to be absolutely charming. She’s smart as a whip, often comes off as older than she actually is but never lets the reader forget that she can be a bratty twelve year old. As a mystery loving Anglophile, I’m probably the target audience for this series. Bradley’s old-fashioned stories harken back to Agatha Christie’s best works, mixed with a dash of Eloise’s precociousness. The prose can meander at times, especially when Flavia goes on a long tangent about chemistry (I am definitely not a scientist nor particularly interested in chemistry) so sometimes I find myself skimming passages to get to the actual plot.

The most maddening (but certainly not negative) element of the series is the larger mystery: what is Flavia’s destiny? What is she being trained for? Who exactly is the group her mother worked for? Long time readers might be frustrated by the lack of answers in this latest novel. As with each previous book, the central plot’s mystery is solved by the end; however, the bigger questions are advanced and added to, but not answered.

In short, Flavia may be an unconventional protagonist but as a character she is clever, funny and utterly unstoppable, much like author Alan Bradley. “As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust” was an excellent addition to the series and I look forward to reading the eighth novel next year!

P.S. Alan Bradley…if you’re reading this…answers next year please…just one…a little one…you can e-mail me!