Friday, February 1, 2013

Speaking from Among the Bones

So, I'm not totally sure what happened to January except that it seems to have blown by and, despite my best intentions every week, I never managed to make it over here. My work schedule has changed a bit, and I was away, and there are lots of reasons that January was a bad blogging month, but that stops now, because it's February and high time I got my act together. January was, I should say, an excellent reading month, and one of the definite high points was Alan Bradley's latest Speaking from Among the Bones. I am generally quite sceptical about series. I don't like getting sucked in and feeling obliged to read each new book as it comes out, especially since I tend to outgrow series and then become increasingly disappointed with each book as I (and likely the author) get tired of the characters and the plots. All of that being said, Flavia de Luce has yet to disappoint, and although we're getting to the point in the series where Bradley must necessarily offer the background of his previous books as little asides, his plots and intrigue remain as fresh and fun as ever.

The novel opens with Flavia and her sister Ophelia in St. Tancred's church, where Feely (as she is affectionately/not-so-affectionately know) is practicing on the organ and Flavia is contemplating the grisly scene of St. John the Baptist's decapitation. Feely is practicing the organ because she has taken over as the parish organist, the previous organist having gone missing about six months previous. It's a week before Easter and, on top of that, mere days before the tomb of St. Tancred is to be opened. Feely, though, is complaining about the sound of some of the pipes, so she and Flavia go into the organ – something Flavia didn't know was possible – to check things out and find a bat inside there with them, which terrifies Feely and sends them both home. I had no idea such a thing was possible and, I have to say, it's little value-added details like the names of the organ pipes that make Bradley such a good read.

But, the mystery doesn't start in the organ; rather, it's the next day when Flavia returns to the church to investigate how a bat got into the organ that things get exciting. St. Tancred is about to be exhumed, and despite some setbacks from the church bureaucracy, things eventually go ahead and she is invited down to watch (the idea being that the youngest person on hand should be a witness, as they'll be around the longest to tell the tale). So, down into the crypt goes Flavia with the vicar et al. and, after the stone covering the crypt has been pried almost open, Flavia sticks her head inside and discovers the body of the dead organist, wearing a gas mask. 

Flavia, naturally, is on the case, but it seems she isn't alone. In addition to the police – with whom she has very little interaction in this novel, a little change from the last few that indicates Bradley hasn't yet totally fallen into a formula – Rev. Richardson's old friend Adam Sowerby, an anthropologist specializing in plants (and a private detective) is on hand, as is Miss Tanty, the head of the church choir and quite a fan of detective novels. Flavia and Adam form a friendly, if suspicious, partnership, sharing notes on their findings. One such detail is that St. Tancred was buried with his staff, which was rumoured to hold a large diamond, and additionally that St. Tancred may well have been a de Luce. 

As good as the mystery always is, it's the domestic side of Bradley's novels that really make these must-reads. Flavia's life at home, with her two sisters, father, Dogger, and Mrs. Mullett, is the heart of every novel. The de Luce's financial problems have been a feature since book one, and the possibility that Buckshaw, the family home, maybe sold is a very real presence Speaking from Among the Bones, as is, as ever, the mythology of Flavia's missing-presumed-dead mother Harriet. As part of her sleuthing, Flavia discovers some new details about her mother, and that additional puzzle offers a through-line to the novels that makes them best read in order. Truly, for all my wariness about series, I can't help but be pulled into Flavia's adventures, and upon finishing each one, sincerely hoping Bradley has another novel waiting in the wings.

Speaking from Among the Bones
by Alan Bradley
Published 2013 (cover image shown from Doubleday Canada edition)

2 comments:

  1. You mentioned one of the things that makes the mystery novel stand out from the crowd. The domestic angle, or any other angle, is one that is sometimes ignored by authors. You get the sense that they don't realize that introducing the characters to us as people will get readers more involved in what they are reading.

    Of course we want a good mystery. We want to wonder and come up with theories and have our hearts pound. Having a good side story makes the story better.

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