My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have really enjoyed the Flavia series. So innovative, fresh, and different (as far as typical mysteries go!)
Flavia, the precocious (and often impudent) twelve-year old (who in previous books in this series has been instrumental in solving several murders), has been sent away to boarding school in Canada. Her own mother had attended this same school, and one of the first connections Flavia makes is seeing her mother’s portrait on the wall of “The Old Girls Gallery”.
When Flavia arrives at the Academy, she immediately (the very same night she arrives!) discovers a body (guess where? hint: it wasn’t Santa…), and soon discovers also that there are some missing persons. Where are they? what happened to them? One thing the reader can be sure of: Flavia will leave no stone unturned to find out.
“Three girls have gone missing from Miss Bodycote’s in the past two years. Their names are Le Marchand, Wentworth, and Brazenose.”
Throughout the book Flavia will be not only attempting to solve the mystery of the ‘body in the chimney’, but also battling her homesickness while attempting to fit in with the other girls.
“Nickles? Dimes? I knew that cents were roughly equivalent to pence, but beyond that, Canadian currency was a veiled mystery.
Why had I ever been sent away from the land of the sixpence – the land of half-crowns, ha’pennies, florins, farthings, and shillings, the land of decent coinage, where everything made sense?
How could I possibly learn to survive in such a pagan place, where trams were streetcars, vans and lorries were trucks, pavements were sidewalks, jumpers were sweaters, petrol was gasoline, aluminium was aluminum, sweets were candy, a full stop was a period, and cheerio was good-bye?
A towering wave of homesickness broke over me: a wave even greater than the Atlantic gales through which I had safely sailed; greater than anything I could ever have possibly imagined.”
If you have read the books in the series and know anything of Flavia’s personality, you will find that she is the same bold, adventurous girl who pretends not to care what others think. Inside herself, however, Flavia battles the insecurities and human failings that we all have (especially in the pre-teen years!) And this is partly what makes Flavia so appealing. The author has cleverly given Flavia vulnerabilities that immediately give us, her fan readers, a point of connection and identification. (I would not be surprised to find that Flavia is a ‘real’ person to many!)
There do seem to be some loosely-woven incidents that don’t really fit in with the story in this latest Flavia tome. At times I found this book to be a bit of a slogging through (something I hadn’t ever come across in this series before!) Inspector Gravenhurst shows up too briefly to practically be of help to investigate the case. I wish that Miss Fawlthorne’s character was more developed. Flavia makes friends with the head girl, Jumbo, halfway through the book… and she rescues another girl, Scarlett, whom she befriends…but then nothing further seems to come of either relationship.
Instead, what “As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust” seems to me to be, is a ‘transitional’ mystery. Flavia is growing up. She has questions about herself and her world, she is reaping the consequences of her actions, and, although she still creatively gets herself in and out of tricky situations, she finds she is more vulnerable than she thinks. Flavia is not only homesick for Doggett and her father, but she also (*surprise!*) misses her older sisters.
“From her perch on the organ bench at St. Tancred’s, my older sister was always able to hear even the slightest improvisation on my part, and would swing round her burning-glass gaze to put me in my place.
I was struck by a sudden pang.
Dear God! I thought. How I miss her!
As if she were here, I fell back into line with the other singers: “Angels, help us to adore him; we behold him face to face, Sun and moon, bow down before him, dwellers all in time and space.”
That was just it, wasn’t it! That’s what we were: Dwellers all in time and space. Not old scraps of iron lashed together like a Meccano set by some invisible builder…”
I think everyone likes the perspective of a pre-teen in solving a mystery, the ‘chutzpah’ that a young person will bring to a murder investigation, the interplay with family relationships. Alan Bradley certainly has brought a new perspective into crime with his Flavia de Luce series. Should the author come out with another Flavia de Luce, I am sure I will read that one too.
“Miss Fawlthorne smiled, as if she were reading my mind. ‘So you see,’ she said, ‘in a way, if there had been no Flavia de Luce, there also may not have been, for much longer, a Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy.’
I’m afraid I could do no more than gape as the meaning of her words took root.
“We have a great deal riding upon you, Flavia… a very great deal.”