Book Review: Speaking From Among the Bones

Book cover: Speaking from amng the bonesThe latest Flavia novel has arrived… and it is a cracker!

Now that Alan Bradley’s Flavia mysteries have become an annual event, Bradley fans have certain expectations, and this book delivers on all counts: midnight skulduggery in a churchyard, a bizarre murder discovered by the unflappable Flavia, rivalry with her obnoxious sisters, one-upmanship with Inspector Hewitt, triumphs through chemistry, descriptions that border on the genius, and more laugh out loud moments than any of the previous books in the series. (Minor nit: this novel also seems to have more Americanisms in the text than any of the previous books; someone needs to find themselves a British copy editor!) But on with the show…

This is the fifth book in the series featuring eleven-year-old chemist and amateur detective Flavia de Luce, who has a talent for stumbling across dead bodies. This time, she’s angling to be the first person to see the remains of St. Tancred, the patron saint of Bishop’s Lacey, who is being disinterred for the quincentennial of his death, when she instead gets the first glimpse of someone else’s remains: the church organist, Mr. Collicutt. The plot of this book is delightfully complex compared to the last one, and involves corrupt religious officials, a leprous magistrate, an elephantine soprano, a collector of antique seeds, a victim of lead poisoning, a centuries-old diamond known as the Heart of Lucifer, and a hen named Esmeralda. We also have all the usual beloved regulars: the vicar, Inspector Hewitt, Captain Havilland de Luce, Flavia’s evil older sisters (all right, some loathed regulars) Ophelia and Daphne, Dogger, Mrs. Mullet, and Flavia’s trusty steed Gladys.

The fearless Flavia launches into her own investigations as usual, cheerfully ignoring Inspector Hewitt’s warnings and really coming into her own, in this story, as a sleuth, chemist, and explorer (there’s always a lot of crawling through dirt for our mettlesome heroine, and never more than in this book, which also involves wriggling through putrid graves). As always, both Bradley’s characters and descriptions delight. Alan Bradley is such an enormously talented writer that even if his books weren’t entertaining, gripping, and hilarious, they would be worth reading for the writing alone; this is one of those books you will find yourself re-reading for the sheer pleasure of re-acquainting oneself with certain passages. But happily, plot, character, and description are all deliciously intertwined in this book: a trinity of majestic writing.

To wit, Flavia’s discovery of the wrong dead body, and her delightfully deadpan response: “The first thing I saw was a human hand, its dried fingers tightly clutching a bit of broken glass tubing. And then the face – and ghastly, inhuman mask with enormous, staring acetate eyes and a piggish rubber snout. Beneath it was a white ruffle, not quite covering the ink-black vessels of the neck and throat. Above the eyes was a shock of curly golden choirboy hair. This was most definitely not the body of Saint Tancred. I turned off the torch, withdrew my head, and turned slowly to the vicar. ‘I believe we’ve found Mr. Collicutt,’ I said.”

And Flavia’s descriptions of those she encounters: “Miss Tanty… was a retired music mistress whose sheer physical bulk and full-strength spectacles gave her the appearance of an ancient omnibus with enormous acetylene headlamps bearing down upon you in a narrow country lane.”

Flavia’s delight in chemistry, especially her predilection for poisons: “I had created a poison which, in sufficient quantities, was enough to stop a rogue elephant dead in its tracks. What it would do to an impertinent sister was almost too gruesome to contemplate. One aspect of poisons that is often overlooked is the pleasure one takes in gloating over them.”

I could go on forever, but one more favourite feature of the Flavia oeuvre: the personification of her bicycle Gladys: “I parked Gladys on the north side of Cassandra Cottlestone’s tomb and gave her leather seat a pat. The silver glint of her handlebars reminded me of a frightened horse showing the whites of its eyes.”

Without giving away any more of the plot, I’ll sum up by saying that Flavia’s triumph over all the adults will make you want to jump up and shout “Yaroo!”

There were a couple of not-quite-believable plot points in this book, the most obvious being Flavia’s father’s refusal to part with a First Quarto Shakespeare which could have brought in enough money to save the ancestral home. It seemed unlikely that a small inscription of his late wife’s would hold more cherished memories than an entire mansion; he already has a shrine to his deceased wife in the house, so it makes no sense that he would he choose the book over the latter, let alone that he would make the family homeless for the sake of one scribble.

And there still remain a few unsolved mysteries that span all the books: Why do Flavia and Daphne not go to school? Even if Captain de Luce can’t afford private school, isn’t there a school in at least one of the local villages? And why are there no children Flavia’s age in Bishop’s Lacey? (Lack of local schooling, perhaps?) And could an eleven-year-old really become that adept at chemistry with only books, and no tutor, to teach her? If we’re to believe that five murders could happen in one small village in the space of a year, then we need to believe in the more practical aspects of life in Bishop’s Lacey, too!

Now, besides my earlier nitpick about the Americanisms insinuated their way into the text, I do have a slightly larger axe to grind: I have a personal dislike of books that end on a cliff-hanger. It feels too much like we’re going into a commercial break. If the idea is to get us to buy the next book… we were going to do so anyway! No need to leave us with a Season Finale; a book should have a proper ending. So it looks like we’ll have a LONG wait to find out more about Colonel de Luce’s discovery. (No spoilers here, you’ll have to read it yourself).

That aside, this still feels like a deluxe, bumper edition of Flavia – all the ingredients we’ve come to love, tantalizingly simmered over one of our young detective’s Bunsen burners and set in front of us to either fester into fireworks or distil into delight – or both!

by Jody Kihara

Speaking From Among the Bones is available for sale on January 29, 2013 – you can pre-order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, The Book Repository, and other retailers.