The sun shining down on a typical English village in June, with its historic church, its inn providing tea and shortbread, its mandatory river, the small village shop and, of course, the requisite murder. Mysteries don’t come more comforting than than this. Perhaps it’s a hangover from Miss Marple days. But the twelve year old, pigtailed, brace wearing, chemistry protege, Flavia de Luce, is nothing like Miss Marple. She exudes intensity instead of wooliness and, even in her best attempts, does not manage to be either pleasant or comforting.
In Alan Bradley‘s ninth Flavia book – The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place – Flavia and her two sisters, along with Dogger, their father’s man Friday/butler/ chauffeur/ gardener and for the purpose of this book – boatman, are on a boating holiday in an attempt to recuperate after the tragedy at the end of the previous book. The town of Volesthorpe and its church, St. Mildred’s in the Marsh have gained notoriety because it’s erstwhile Canon was hanged for having poisoned some of the parishioners. Flavia, with the unerring accuracy of the detective, discovers the body of the Canon’s son whose death also seems suspicious. Then follows the usual discussions and theories on strychnine, potassium cyanide, arsenic etc and wonderful information on how to create a makeshift chemical laboratory. Flavia is not in her element, being away from her beloved house Buckshaw and her well equipped lab. She is also, and this is most distressing to the reader, away from her equally beloved bicycle Gladys, her partner in various escapades and in the solving of so many previous crimes. However, being Flavia, she doesn’t allow adverse circumstances to hamper her investigations.
This book is a little different from the others as the relationship between Flavia and her sisters seems to be changing despite valiant efforts on the part of all three to maintain their usual acerbity. But Flavia, despite her grief, is as irrepressible as always and her love for chemistry carries her through all emotional upheavals. As always Bradley manages to make chemistry seem cool and one almost wishes that one had paid more attention in school.
In these days when murder mysteries are becoming darker, more graphic about violence, with bloody details and even the older stories are being turned into dark television adaptations, it is rather comforting to read a story that in many ways harks back to a different age. The mystery itself is no less complicated but the protagonist and the rural setting make it an enjoyable and comforting read. To be savoured along with tea and shortbread. At least one is not likely to throw it up due to unending descriptions of blood and gore.