Alan Bradley – As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (plus a bonus short story!)
Read my review of book:
1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
2. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
3. A Red Herring Without Mustard
4. I am Half-Sick of Shadows
5. Speaking from Among the Bones
6. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Started: 12 June 2015
Finished: 16 June 2015
Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? New Flavia de Luce book!
This boarding school comes
complete with classes, classmates,
secrets, and a corpse.
Summary: Flavia is leaving her beloved Buckshaw behind and being sent across the ocean to attend Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, her mother Harriet’s alma mater. But in true Flavia fashion, she’d been there less than a day before stumbling across a corpse: wrapped in a flag and crammed up her bedroom chimney. It’s unclear how long the body has been up there, but the school’s strict headmistress covers up the whole affair before Flavia even gets a chance to investigate! That’s not going to daunt Flavia, though, nor is the fact that students at Miss Bodycote’s are not allowed to ask questions of their superiors; she’s determined to pry into the school’s secrets in order to learn the victim’s name and when she died – and who put her up the chimney. And to make matters worse, there are no shortage of suspects, from haughty upperclasswomen to a teacher who is an acquitted murder, to the headmistress herself. Plus Miss Bodycote’s has had a history of girls who have disappeared – left for home is the official story, but Flavia suspects there’s something much more sinister going on… and she’s going to find out what.
Review: I love the Flavia de Luce mysteries, and I love a good boarding school story, so this one should have been a slam dunk, but it wound up not really being cohesive enough for my tastes. The mystery of the body in the chimney itself was pretty good – there were enough clues but it wasn’t obvious – but there were a lot of other things that were left unresolved. In particular, it’s implied that Miss Bodycote’s is more than it appears, in terms of training young women for the secret service activities of Flavia’s mother and Aunt Felicity, but despite hints of it coming up repeatedly, there’s a lot of “secret society; can’t tell you details” going on, ultimately leaving neither Flavia nor the readers with any better idea about what’s really happening. I also thought there was not enough boarding-school-ness for a boarding school story: not enough context, not enough attending of classes or dealing with the dining hall or with her classmates, in lieu of Flavia investigating on her own.
There were also too many new characters introduced to keep them all straight, or to really get a feel for more than a handful of them, and some of the emotions didn’t quite ring true. (For example, one of the characters is sent out to skate laps as punishment, then later Flavia’s all “but was that really a punishment? She loves skating!” but I don’t remember ever having heard anything about skating before. There was a general sense throughout that too many scenes or details got cut during the editing process, leaving the remaining story not quite cohesive.) None of the new characters were a replacement for Dogger, or Feely and Daffy, either – most likely because we don’t know them as well yet. And since indications are that the next book will be set back in England, I’m kind of left wondering what the point of the Canadian excursion actually was.
Of course, the book was still fun to read – Flavia’s a great narrator, there are plenty of funny bits, and she actually got to use her chemistry knowledge as well as her sleuthing abilities in this book. (Hooray, science!) But while the actual reading experience was enjoyable, in the end this book didn’t quite feel as cohesive or as polished as most of its predecessors. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: If you’ve been enjoying the series thus far, you’ll probably want to carry on with this book. It’s not the best, but it’s a fun afternoon’s read.
First Line: If you’re anything like me, you adore rot.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 125: “I’m beginning to suspect that, everywhere on earth, professionals in the life sciences must share with Sherlock Holmes’s Dr. Watson that same vein of pawky humor.” – Shrewd and cunning, often in a humorous manner.
- p. 209: “It was not a pleasant task – something like trying to force-feed a bedridden grampus – but I persisted.” – a widely distributed slaty-grey dolphin, Grampus griseus, with a blunt snout.
- p. 314: “From this “coign of vantage” (as Shakespeare would have called it) I could not possibly be seen.” – the keystone of an arch.
I also read the short story “The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse” a few months before I tackled As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. In this story, Flavia receives a hastily scrawled message from someone at the local boys’ school: a housemaster has been found dead in a bathtub, his corpse entirely coated with copper, like a statue. Given that it seems like all of the boys under his care have some connection to chemistry, it will take Flavia’s unique deductive ability uncover who’s really responsible for this gruesome death.
This story was fun enough, but it needed to be longer – the way it is is like “suspect, suspect, suspect, suspect, *BAM* solution.” It was also difficult to place in time – Flavia is still at Buckshaw, and still eleven years old, so it happens sometime after the first book but before the seventh, but if there are any other clues as to where it falls in the series timewise, I missed them. So, while it was an entertaining-enough 20 minutes of reading, it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as a real book where the mystery can develop more fully.
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