CM . . . . Volume XX Number 33 . . . . April 25, 2014
The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches starts where Speaking From Among the Bones, the previous novel in Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series, ends. For 10 years (and five novels), readers (and Flavia) have wondered about the circumstances of Harriet's de Luce mysterious disappearance. What could have prompted her to leave behind a quiet, but genteelly privileged life at Buckshaw, her ancestral home in the tiny hamlet of Bishop's Lacey? After all, "She loved it here [at Buckshaw]. Nothing was more precious to her . . . than her home and her family. Harriet went away only because she had no other choice. It was a matter . . . of life and death. Not your life and death . . . but of England . . ." (p. 224) The answer to the question becomes as clear as the blue skies they fly in while Flavia's formidable Aunt Felicity pilots Harriet's plane, Blithe Spirit, and the two have a serious conversation, high above Buckshaw, where no one can possibly eavesdrop. But, more about that conversation, later.
Harriet comes home via a special funeral train which stops at Buckshaw Halt, the tiny railway station which had once been used to bring "goods and guests to the great house" (p. 6), but has long fallen into disuse. Colonel Haviland de Luce meets her coffin at the station, the same place where the two had first met. Although the train is small, its passengers are distinguished: white-gloved military bearers, a large group of well-dressed men and women, a "fit but forbidding woman in RAF colours" (p. 8) (Col. De Luce's sister, Felicity) and last, though certainly not least, England's war-time Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. What brings him to Buckshaw to pay his final respects to Harriet? In the midst of the many who come forth to offer condolences is a tall man who approaches Flavia and imparts a cryptic message: "Tell your father that the Gamekeeper is in jeopardy. He'll understand. I must speak to him. Tell him that the Nide is under---" (p. 14) Their conversation ends abruptly because Flavia's eldest sister drags her off to the Rolls Royce Phantom II (Harriet's car), which will drive the de Luces back to Harriet's lying-in-state at Buckshaw Manor. Suddenly, those still standing at the train's platform witness a horrible scene: the tall man who spoke to Flavia is now lying beneath the wheels of the last car of the train. "Someone pushed him," said a woman's voice from somewhere behind me in the crowd" (p. 16). If so, who? Yet another mystery, as is the identity of that woman who spoke.
In the previous Flavia novels, Harriet de Luce has always been a larger-than-life presence, and Alan Bradley has offered readers tantalizing hints about her mysterious past. Col. de Luce has clearly been devastated by the loss of his wife (apparently killed in a climbing accident in Tibet), and, in the previous books, he has slipped further and further into emotional distance and dysfunction (exacerbated by his five years spent in a Japanese POW camp). With her older sisters, Ophelia (aka Feely, seven years older) and Daphne (aka Daffy, two years Flavia's senior), Flavia's interactions and conversations have been a cold war of petty annoyances and witty insults. While curious about her mother, of whom she is said to be Harriet's reincarnation, the focus of the preceding five books has been Flavia's scientific experimentation in her superbly-equipped personal chemistry laboratory, and her use of that expertise to assist the local police in solving the astonishing number of murders which have taken place in Bishop's Lacey during the preceding year. With Harriet's return, the twilight of "unknowing" ends and, after the inevitable darkness which comes with any death, a new dawn breaks in the lives of the remaining de Luces at the manor.
Now, a détente currently exists amongst the three sisters, and they behave with remarkable civility towards each other. The week before Harriet's return, while rooting around in Buckshaw's many attics, Flavia had found an old movie camera with a portion of its film exposed but still undeveloped. Being a crackerjack chemist, Flavia's developing the remaining film is a snap, and soon she runs the film through a projector and watches a family home movie: images of the beautiful Harriet, Feely and Daffy as small children, Flavia, herself, as the "bump in [Harriet's] bloomers" (p. 36), and of her younger and handsome father, obviously in love with his radiant wife, the two enjoying a picnic on the estate. The scene with Haviland and Harriet is both poignant and puzzling to Flavia: who is filming them, and why does Harriet mouth the phrase, "pheasant sandwiches"? After all, Prime Minister Churchill had asked Flavia if she, too, has "acquired a taste for pheasant sandwiches . . .?" (p. 12)
The love that Haviland and Harriet shared was strong, but equally strong was their love of country, their sense of patriotism. Harriet's choice, as Aunt Felicity tells it, during that conversation high in the air above Buckshaw, was to leave her three small daughters and volunteer for a dangerous war-time mission: "to bring home to justice a traitor who had sold himself out, and England with him." (p. 225) In the course of that mission, Harriet is taken on a tour of the prison in which her husband was incarcerated, and "in that dreadful compound at Changi . . . [her] parents were thrust suddenly and unexpectedly face-to-face . . . but neither batted an eye." (p. 226) Aunt Felicity (now revealed to be a highly-placed member of the British Intelligence Service) is also the keeper of Dogger's secrets and his crucial role in Col. de Luce's life. Both were POW's, and by saving the Colonel's life, his captors punished Dogger by sending him to work on a hellish work gang which hacked a road through the jungles of Thailand and Burma. When the two men were reunited at the end of the war, an army padre "said later of their reunion that even God cried - ." (p. 141) Harriet was betrayed by the traitor she sought, and she died in the Himalayas, but not before she wrote her last will and testament. A resourceful woman, Harriet writes the will using the only ink available: her own urine. During the course of her vigil with her mother's body, Flavia finds the will, and then, her logical mind and chemical acumen enable her to discover the contents, and with it, the identity of Harriet's betrayer.
I'm not going to spoil the final chapters of the book by revealing the villain's identity or the contents of Harriet's will. I will tell you that, by the end of The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, many mysteries, old and current, are resolved, new ones are hinted at, and Flavia's life takes an unexpected turn. She's heading off to Miss Bodycote's Female Academy, in Canada, Toronto, to be exact. Harriet's alma mater "boasts a first-rate chemistry laboratory. . . . And the chemistry mistress, . . . a certain Mrs. Bannerman, was acquitted several years ago of poisoning her wayward husband." (Pp. 290-291) Like her mother, Flavia is less than thrilled with the prospect of being sent to school in Canada, but upon hearing of Mrs. Bannerman, Flavia responds, "I could scarcely wait to meet her."
Flavia fans will certainly enjoy The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, and readers who have not met Flavia are cautioned to make her acquaintance at the beginning of the series (or at the very latest, the third book) and follow her story sequentially. Although The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches could be read as a "stand alone", I think that it really works best if read in the context of the previous works. It has all the charm and wit of its predecessors, even as it provides "closure" (used in its 2014, and not 1951, sense) to Harriet's mysterious disappearance. This is a book which will be enjoyed both by highly capable upper middle school and senior high school female readers, as well as adults. NO, it's not chick lit, but this is probably the most "emotional" of all five novels, and I just don't think it will resonate with teenage boys. The world of Buckshaw, and upper middle-class, post-war Britain has disappeared, but Bradley makes one wistful for the time and the place. Flavia is almost twelve at the end of this book, and sometimes, her insights into human behaviour seem wiser beyond even her admittedly intelligent perceptions. But, maybe that just means that she is growing into the woman she will ultimately become. After all, she is Harriet de Luce's daughter.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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