Written by Alan Bradley — If you come to this book expecting something sombre about human frailty based on Shakespeare’s line, “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney sweepers come to dust,” then you’re in the wrong place. This book is a charming recreation of the 1950s with a pre-teen protagonist. It’s like cosy crime meets Enid Blyton, tinged with a lot of sarcasm.
This is the seventh installment in the much-loved Flavia de Luce series, with its mix of deadpan humour, irreverence and nostalgia. Since there is an overarching story arc about Flavia’s family history and her mother, who went missing on an expedition when Flavia was a baby, I would recommend reading the series in order. It begins with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.
The author is Canadian but sets the series in a more innocent, post-war Britain. I’ve often wondered if the series is addressed to a young adult audience, as the language is matter-of-fact and breezy and there is little graphic violence. However, there is much loving detail in the recreation of that period and setting, which should appeal to older readers and fans of shows like Downton Abbey.
Flavia is a precocious, budding chemist and amateur detective with a relish for the macabre and mysterious. In previous volumes we have become familiar with her dilapidated mansion in the quaint village of Bishop’s Lacey in the English countryside, her eccentric family and her personal science lab. In this book, the author has decided to take us back to his native Toronto, where Flavia is banished to her mother’s old boarding school, Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy.
Alan Bradley has great fun recreating the city of his youth, and the school seems downright creepy and bizarre, with strange rules and intimidating staff members. These include a chemistry teacher who has been tried for and acquitted of poisoning, and Flavia is delighted to learn some advanced chemistry from her. When a mummified corpse falls out of a chimney and some of the other girls mention pupils who have gone missing, our little heroine becomes involved in a strange investigation, hindered every step of the way by the principal. She unearths a world of international spies and conspiracy a little like the boarding-school claustrophobia of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, and the bravado of the Famous Five.
What is the true purpose of the academy? What has happened to the missing girls and why are the teachers trying to hide these incidents? Seances with Ouija boards fail to answer these questions, and labyrinthine corridors hide deadly secrets. Last but not least, what is the link between Flavia’s mother and the top secret organisation called the Nide, and why is Flavia so reluctant to become involved with them?
As you might surmise, this is not a plot to be taken seriously. It is good-natured entertainment, best taken with a pinch of salt. It isn’t the strongest book in the series; the narrative seems to lack its usual oomph and gets repetitive at times. It does make a nice change though to leave Buckshaw Hall, the ancestral home of the de Luce family. Overall, a great way to while away a winter afternoon, and a series you can share with younger crime fiction fans.
As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is released 9 February. If you like the sound of it, you may also like Frances Brody’s Kate Shackleton books, set in the 1920s.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars