Source of book: I own this
This is the fifth book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia series. If you aren’t familiar with the author, I recommend you read my prior reviews.
After his first book became a hit, Bradley signed on for an additional five. I am informed that he has now committed to four more, for a total of ten. Since Bradley was already 71 when the first book was published in 2009, it remains to be seen how long he will continue to write. I am still impressed by his success in his second career. Apparently 70 is just a number for some.
Although all of the Flavia books are enjoyable and well written - for murder mysteries - I think that this one is particularly good. It has plenty of creeping about in dark passageways at night, and continuing deepening of the characters and their relationships. We learn some of the sad past of the vicar and his eccentric wife, while Flavia and her oldest sister begin to relate on a more mature level, even as they continue to bicker.
My only quibble with the series is that there seems so much more that could be explored, if only the books were allowed to be longer. Alas, I may be one of the few that still loves books with 600 pages of small print, and the sprawling worlds that can be contained within them. Bradley does a great job with the space he has, making the words count. His plots are never as intricate as, say, Agatha Christie’s, but the words he might have used for plot twists instead flesh out the small village of Bishop’s Lacey and the familiar, yet more complex characters that inhabit it.
A couple of amusing lines stood out. When Flavia's oldest sister becomes engaged - but won't say to whom - Flavia imagines it might be to a young policeman. She images that evenings in the family might be filled with, "Guts, gore, and Tetley's Tea."
Another comes when she eschews false modesty, with the thought, "No point in wasting time with false vanity when you possess the real thing."
As with previous installments, both music and literature are woven into the fabric of the story. The music is all church organ music, as the hapless victim is the one-time church organist. Literary references abound. (Bradley won my heart early on with a particularly delicious reference to one of Anthony Trollope’s books.)
The title itself comes from a poem by Thomas Parnell, one of the so-called “Graveyard Poets,” pre-romantics who were fascinated with mortality and its symbolism. (The best known were William Cowper and Oliver Goldsmith.)
A Night-Piece on Death
By the blue taper's trembling light,
No more I waste the wakeful night,
Intent with endless view to pore
The schoolmen and the sages o'er:
Their books from wisdom widely stray,
Or point at best the longest way.
I'll seek a readier path, and go
Where wisdom's surely taught below.
How deep yon azure dyes the sky,
Where orbs of gold unnumbered lie,
While through their ranks in silver pride
The nether crescent seems to glide.
The slumb'ring breeze forgets to breathe,
The lake is smooth and clear beneath,
Where once again the spangled show
Descends to meet our eyes below.
The grounds, which on the right aspire,
In dimness from the view retire:
The left presents a place of graves,
Whose wall the silent water laves.
That steeple guides thy doubtful sight
Among the livid gleams of night.
There pass, with melancholy state,
By all the solemn heaps of fate,
And think, as softly-sad you tread
Above the venerable dead,
"Time was, like thee they life possessed,
And time shall be, that thou shalt rest."
Those graves, with bending osier bound,
That nameless heave the crumpled ground,
Quick to the glancing thought disclose
Where Toil and Poverty repose.
The flat smooth stones that bear a name,
The chisel's slender help to fame
(Which ere our set of friends decay
Their frequent steps may wear away),
A middle race of mortals own,
Men, half ambitious, all unknown.
The marble tombs that rise on high,
Whose dead in vaulted arches lie,
Whose pillars swell with sculptured stones,
Arms, angels, epitaphs and bones,
These (all the poor remains of state)
Adorn the rich, or praise the great;
Who, while on earth in fame they live,
Are senseless of the fame they give.
Ha! while I gaze, pale Cynthia fades,
The bursting earth unveils the shades!
All slow and wan, and wrapped with shrouds,
They rise in visionary crowds,
And all with sober accent cry,
"Think, mortal, what it is to die."
Now from yon black and fun'ral yew,
That bathes the charnel-house with dew,
Methinks I hear a voice begin
(Ye ravens, cease your croaking din,
Ye tolling clocks, no time resound
O'er the long lake and midnight ground);
It sends a peal of hollow groans,
Thus speaking from among the bones.
"When men my scythe and darts supply,
How great a King of Fears am I!
They view me like the last of things:
They make, and then they dread, my stings.
Fools! if you less provoked your fears,
No more my spectre-form appears.
Death's but a path that must be trod,
If man would ever pass to God;
A port of calms, a state of ease
From the rough rage of swelling seas.
"Why then thy flowing sable stoles,
Deep pendant cypress, mourning poles,
Loose scarfs to fall athwart thy weeds,
Long palls, drawn hearses, covered steeds,
And plumes of black, that, as they tread,
Nod o'er the scutcheons of the dead?
"Nor can the parted body know,
Nor wants the soul, these forms of woe.
As men who long in prison dwell,
With lamps that glimmer round the cell,
Whene'er their suffering years are run,
Spring forth to greet the glitt'ring sun:
Such joy, though far transcending sense,
Have pious souls at parting hence.
On earth, and in the body placed,
A few, and evil, years they waste;
But when their chains are cast aside,
See the glad scene unfolding wide,
Clap the glad wing, and tow'r away,
And mingle with the blaze of day."