Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Amazing character and character development
Cons: As usual, the mystery is the weak link
The Bottom Line:
Grows character; changes things
Strongest book to date
Strength in Mourning
Since I started the Flavia de Luce series last year, I knew the basic set up of the sixth entry, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, a long time ago. That didn’t stop me from being intrigued by the way the topic was introduced at the end of the last book, and I was looking forward to seeing how things paid off here. The result was the best book in the series to date.
For those unfamiliar with the series, it’s something different. Flavia de Luce is an eleven-year-old amateur chemist and amateur detective in 1951 England. It’s not often you see a child as the main character in an adult novel, right? While some rave about the series, I’ve found them to be a bit slow at times as mysteries, focusing instead on Flavia and her family, her World War II vet father and her two older sisters.
“You’re mother has been found.” As this book opens, it’s been a week since Flavia’s father has made that shocking announcement. Flavia’s mother, Harriet, went missing in Tibet a decade ago and has been presumed dead, but no proof has ever been found. Now, her body is coming back on a special train into their village of Bishop’s Lacey.
There is a crowd on the platform when the train bringing Harriet’s body arrives, including not only friends from the village but people that Flavia doesn’t know. One of them comes up to Flavia and starts to give her an important but cryptic message to pass on to her father. A moment later, this stranger is dead, crushed under the wheels of the train as it is departing. Who was he? What did his strange message mean? Does it have anything to do with Harriet’s death?
I have complained in the past that the mystery often gets swallowed by other going ons in the book, and that certainly happens again here. There are pieces and clues to the mystery scattered throughout the book, so when Flavia does piece things together, it all makes sense. I will say one aspect of the climax seemed a bit abrupt to me, and I’m still wondering why the characters behaved in that manner, but it’s a minor issue for me.
Since the mystery takes a back seat, this book is really about the mourning that the characters go through. Since Flavia is our narrator, her conflicted emotions are the easiest to see. She never knew Harriet since her mother died when she was just a baby, yet she worries that she should be feeling something. Her father clearly still loves Harriet deeply, and Flavia’s sisters try to deal with the confirmation of the loss in their own ways. It makes for a fascinating read as each of the character’s reactions is genuine and perfect for them.
As a result, I don’t recommend jumping in here. To fully get the impact of this book, you need to know the characters. But if you take the time to get to know them, you’ll be very glad you did.
Just in case this is sounding like a dark book, it is and it isn’t. Flavia’s antics help keep things light, and she gets a new foil in this book that is entertaining. There was one scene that had me welling up with tears one minute and laughing out loud the next. The book walks a very fine line, letting us experience the character’s grief without overwhelming or depressing us.
There are some developments in several ongoing sub-plots. I called part of what happened here, but I was still shocked by the rest of it.
This novel does shift our understanding of the characters in a big way, filling in backstory on some of them. I actually bought what the author did in this respect based on some of the conversations and bits and pieces we’ve seen in earlier books. I’m quite curious to see what if anything is done with this in future books.
As always with this series, I listened to the audio version. Jayne Entwistle is Flavia, and her narration is absolutely delightful. If you go this route, you will not be disappointed.
The next book in the series is set up at the end of this book. I know that some fans have been disappointed with it, but I’m quite interested to see what I will think about what happens to Flavia next.
The mysteries continue to be weak here, so I can’t give the book my full endorsement, but fans of Flavia and her family will be enthralled by the character study that is The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches.
Since this book works best if you know the characters, you'll want to read the Flavia de Luce Mysteries in order.