The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley
A few years ago, I was browsing the “buy two get one half-off” table at the bookstore. As always at one of these tables, I easily found two I wanted. For the third pick, I usually take a chance on something I’m not familiar with, but it is a much harder decision. I picked up a book with a magnificent title: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The heroine is eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who uses her knowledge of chemistry (with a specialty in poisons) to solve crimes.
The setting is the English countryside village of Bishop’s Lacey in the 1950s. If you read many mysteries, you know that these quaint, picturesque villages are hotbeds of violence. The inhabitants and visitors regularly stab, drown, or poison their family and neighbors for a variety of grievances. Fortunately, there is the village sleuth who helps the overburdened (and regularly incompetent) local constabulary.
I went through a mystery phase when I was in the 6th grade, and I read shelves of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I tried other authors, but I regularly felt like I was reading the same book over and over. I still appreciate a good mystery now and then, but it is no longer my go-to genre. This book revived my interest a bit because Flavia is a unique voice. As I have read the series, I have enjoyed experiencing the story through her eyes.
The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is the 9th book in the series. Flavia has been through a lot since the beginning (I’ll be vague to avoid spoilers). She is now 12 and vacationing with her family in another small, murderous English village. Floating along the river in a boat with her two sisters and faithful servant Dogger, Flavia finds a body. Her investigation begins the minute she tows the body to shore.
Flavia joins forces with Dogger to solve what she is sure must be a crime. Dogger has long been her confidant when it comes to her investigations, but this is the first time they have worked together actively. The interactions between the characters are fascinating because Flavia is evolving. Her observations have acquired more depth. She has always been sensitive to Dogger, a former prisoner of war prone to flashbacks. However, she seems to have learned even better how to help him by redirecting his attention. Somewhere in his mysterious past he learned some crime solving skills and can even teach Flavia a thing or two. They both seem to benefit from the interaction.
Most interestingly, Flavia’s relationship with her sisters is starting to change as she matures, and perhaps as they mature too. Flavia has always felt they blamed her for their mother’s disappearance when Flavia was only a baby. Under all of the sisterly squabbles (and an occasional minor poisoning), is a lot of anger. In this book, Flavia seems to start to see her sisters more as individuals. These newly evolved relationships all contribute to the mystery’s resolution.
The now 12-years-old Flavia is growing up, but she hasn’t lost any of her charm. The end of the book leaves room for many adventures to come. In fact, The Golden Tresses of the Dead was recently released and is high on my list of books to get soon.
The trappings of the mystery genre sometimes get repetitive, but Bradley gives them new life with Flavia.