Wednesday, March 22, 2017

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

Source of book: I own this

I don’t read too many series books, in part because I could easily fill my reading schedule up with them alone, and never get to other stuff. However, there are arguably six series that I do follow. Two are kind of wobbly as to whether they fit the definition (Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barchester series and something by P. G. Wodehouse each year.), but the other four definitely qualify. Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series has long been one of my favorites. I am two books into C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series, and have greatly enjoyed it so far. My kids insist that we listen to Alexander McCall Smith's excellent Mma. Ramotswe series on audiobook when we travel - although we have done them completely out of order. The other series is the Flavia series by Alan Bradley, of which As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is the seventh. Here are the others:

As I noted in the very first review, Alan Bradley turned to writing fiction late in life. The first six books were part of his original contract, which has now been extended after the significant success of the first books. I strongly recommend reading both the books and my reviews in order, as the later ones assume the earlier ones.

Like all the books in the series, this one has its title taken from a line in an old book. The full quote, from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (one of the plays I haven’t seen) is a song for a dead character. (I didn’t read the entire play to figure out what was going on - maybe some day…)

FEAR no more the heat o’ the sun,
 Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
 Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great,
 Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
 To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
 Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
 Thou hast finish’d joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
 Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
 Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

The choice of title also refers to the fact that the corpse that sets the plot in motion is discovered in a chimney.

The last few books have been significantly darker than the earlier books, which had more whimsy and fun. In part, what has happened is that Flavia herself is growing up, and having to deal with much more adult situations. But also, Bradley is taking the stories to a darker place in general. Whether this is a good development is debatable, and the Amazon reviews show a sharp split in opinion.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is also unusual in that it is not set in the sleepy village of Bishop’s Lacey, but in a strict girl’s academy in Canada. Thus, Flavia is adrift from her roots, and none of the familiar characters enters the story in any significant way. This is too bad, in my opinion, as the supporting cast was a lot of the fun. Dodger, and the semi-wicked step-sisters, and the vicar and his wife, and the inspector as Flavia’s frenemy. Most notably absent in this book is any comic relief. I think it could have used a bit of humor to relieve the tension.

On the other hand, I think the story itself works well, and Bradley keeps the reader as off guard as he does his protagonist. Nobody is who they seem to be, and everyone has secrets. Since this book continues the plot twist from the last book - that Flavia’s mother was involved in a secret quasi-government spy society - Flavia is now embroiled in that world, even if she doesn’t know who is in or out, or on her side or not. This is a definite change from the earlier books, which had a Miss Marple meets Nancy Drew sort of feel to them. I am curious to see where Bradley takes the series next. Will Flavia’s return to England mean a return the series’ roots, or has everything changed too much? I hope we at least get the old characters back, because the new ones in this book tended more toward the sinister than the likeable.

Still, not a bad book, and a nice diversion, as a murder mystery should be. Start this series at the beginning, and enjoy.


  1. I wasn't sure if you'd seen the promos for it, but hulu is doing The Handmaid's Tale as a mini-series starting April 26.

    1. I saw that. I rarely watch TV, but if it turns out to be good, I might have to take a look.

    2. I'm getting hulu just to watch, and I'll let you know.