Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

Source of book: I own this   

This is book six in Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce series. Previous books:

I recommend reading all of my reviews of this series in order, as I do not repeat common information for each installment. 

The previous book ended with a cliffhanger: Flavia’s long lost mother has been found. Or, at least her body has been found. After ten years missing on a glacier, nobody expected her to be alive. But this still makes a difference, as her disappearance has tied up the family estate, clouding the title, and causing unending financial troubles for Flavia’s father.

However, mystery remains. What was Harriet doing a world away from her infant daughter? And why did Winston Churchill himself come to bid her adieu?

Unlike the previous installments, there is precious little detection by Flavia. Instead, her explorations are as much internal as external. She is the spitting image of her mother - mentally as well as physically, but she doesn’t quite know what to do with that. (Well, at 11, which of us did?) Flavia too must work through her grief, which is difficult, because she never knew her mother. She does not grieve therefore because of what she lost, but because of what she never had and never will have - an entirely different experience. This is compounded by the fact that she is expected to show the “correct” signs of grief, as determined by English post-war society. Unlike her eldest sister, she lacks the social graces to pull this off.

In the earlier books, she is able to come through in the end with a solution, but in this one, her best attempts at a miracle are doomed from the outset. She can solve the mystery, but the past cannot be undone.

It is weird to think of this as a “dark” installment in the series, because murder mysteries are, in most cases, dark by definition. So I won’t call this book dark, except in the sense that Flavia for the first time has to face an inner darkness. She has felt fear before: but that is a vivid emotion, full of life. Grief is dull and the pain tends toward death rather than life. The relatively innocent and buoyant Flavia is missing in this book, but there is the promise of a rebirth. She will be more seasoned, perhaps, and not so youthful. But she will return with her sense of destiny and calling sharper than ever.

One of the things I like about this series is that Bradley has steadfastly resisted the temptation to make them boilerplate mysteries. The first one fits the pattern pretty well, but each subsequent installment has delved deeper into the characters, fleshing out the other inhabitants of the village, and bringing nuance to Flavia’s father and sisters. No, these books aren’t exactly Trollope, although Bradley name checks him enough. But given the shorter format and the need to fulfil his contractual obligations, he has done a fine job of elevating them above the usual genre fiction.

Bradley always puts in a few details that I find amusing. In many cases, he puts a fun spin on cliches. In one case, he uses “hen’s dentures” instead of the more familiar idiom. 

The titles of the books all come from literature, often poetry of the 17th or 18th Centuries. This book, like the previous one, comes from Thomas Parnell’s “A Night-Piece on Death.” I quoted the poem in its entirety in that review because it is delicious. I recommend reading it.

I’m also an airplane buff, so it was fun to see an appearance of the Gypsy Moth in this book. Harriet’s plane has been mentioned a few times, but Flavia gets a chance to experience it for herself. There are a number of these still around and in flying condition, although I have only seen a static display. Pretty slick aircraft, though.

As a musician, I have found in several of the books some interesting references. Flavia’s eldest sister Ophelia is a talented pianist and organist, and, like many of us buries herself in her art when stressed. Bradley knows enough of the repertoire to insert some appropriate - and often interesting - works. (I mentioned in my review of A Red Herring Without Mustard that Ophelia plays Schubert’s B Flat Sonata - a calm piece - when she is agitated.)

Music is at the center of this book, with the rousing ditty “Ta-ra-ra BOOM-de-ay” playing a central role. But there are two others that warrant mentioning as well.

Ophelia also chooses two familiar and poignant works during the course of the book. The slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, and the 18th variation from Variations on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov.

We classical musicians can simply read the names and hear the immortal tunes in our heads. And these are excellent choices, I must say. Enjoy.

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