I may have expressed concern when Alan Bradley finished off the last Flavia mystery by sending our favourite female detective off to Canada. It occurred to me that he might be removing her from all the atmosphere and individuals that made the books so rich in interest and humour. I nurtured in my heart the suspicion that the author was getting stale, and wanted some fresh interest for his readership.
I have to say, it worked. Bradley has gone all out to populate this novel with a whole new phantasmagoria of wild and wacky characters. Flavia is banished to Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto – under the leadership of Miss Fawlthorne, “The Hangman’s Mistress” – for further training in the arts of secret mayhem and saving civilization as we know it. Her first reward is a body falling from her chimney within hours of her arrival. Add a couple of ghosts and three missing students, and the chase is on. She is required to discover a whole new set of enemies and allies (Flavia doesn’t really make friends; the only one in her life so far has been Dogger, the shell-shocked butler).
But Bradley hasn’t strayed too far from his roots. Miss Bodycote’s, a private school in 1950’s Canada, is not a whole lot different from any English public school of the past three hundred years. Except for a bit of fun about dimes and nickles and moose, the whole thing could easily fit in Yorkshire or Devon. Of course three thousand miles of heaving ocean does add poignancy to Flavia’s homesickness.
In this story we see Flavia at her strongest and perhaps her weakest as well. Homesickness and lack of Dogger’s dogged support both play a part, but our heroine rises to the occasion. Without the backup of her infamous chemistry lab, she makes do with the school’s inferior equipment (the electron microscope her aunt donated was of no use) to solve the puzzle.
I couldn’t help but feel, as one often does in murder mysteries, a certain slowing of the pace about two-thirds of the way through. The suspense rather flatlined for a while, and a series of events that did not seem to be going anywhere began to lose my attention. However, a tidy twist to the plot soon fixed that, and on we rushed to the climax.
It is difficult to remember back over the years, but I believe that Bradley’s humour in this novel surpasses that of the rest of the series. I leave you with this unforgettable image: a troop of Girl Guides practices focusing the mind:
“And so we had been made to learn how to estimate time…while balancing blindfolded on a chair as a gang of girls, singing at the top of their lungs ‘Ging-gang-goolie-goolie-goolie-goolie watcha, ging-gang-goo, ging-gang-goo!’ hurled tightly balled-up winter socks at our head.”
If you’re less of an Alan Bradley fan and more of a Girl Guide you might be thinking of lawsuits right now, but I assure you it’s just part and parcel of the whole experience (the book, not the real Girl Guides).
So, instead of finding that Flavia’s Canadian jaunt signaled a weakening of the wonderful style and characters I had come to enjoy, this book was a rejuvenation of the series and Bradley’s writing talents.
Recommended for lovers of quirky humour, murder mysteries and the Flavia de Luce Mysteries. In fact, (minor spoiler alert) Bradely’s decision about Flavia’s future at the end of the story leaves me with as many misgivings as the one mentioned earlier. Probably exactly what he intended. Five stars out of five.