Ah, Flavia! Back to your old hijinks once again. The latest installment of Alan Bradley’s series, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, featuring our favorite now-12 year old chemistry genius with a penchant for poisons has Flavia hopping the pond to attend her mother’s old boarding school in…Canada. Toronto, to be exact. Feeling banished (to quote our heroine), Flavia wastes no time wading in waist-deep to another murder mystery, this time the result of a crispy body falling out of the chimney in her room at Miss Bodycoate’s Female Academy. Mysterious disappearances, secret societies, and the perils of making new friends in a strange place, along with a host of new (and possibly sinister) characters, all keep Flavia on her toes as she races the clock to solve the murder before another happens. As is the case with this series, I really can’t tell you more than that. The mystery itself is rather straightforward and self-contained, but it hinges on a major plot element of the overarching story that connects these novels together. So that’s all you get, I’m afraid. But sufficed to say that the students and staff of Miss Bodycoate’s Female Academy are sufficiently quirky and entertaining to keep us and Flavia engaged.
This book could easily have been called Flavia Goes West! or Flavia’s Canadian Adventure! or Flavia and the Canucks! as it contains all the gravity of some of those early American adventure films. It reads much more broadly than the previous books, invoking the stylized language of the noir detective films of the ’30’s and ’40’s, a mechanism Flavia uses to fit in once she realizes that her classmates really do speak in real life the way the movie stars do in the films. Flavia must adapt and “play the game”, as it were, because she is away from home and those people closest to her. It’s charming and endearing, accentuating Flavia’s quick wits and sense of self-preservation. However, it is also indicative of my major issue with this, the 7th book in Bradley’s series. Perhaps Bradley or his editors felt it was time for a change. Perhaps this book was meant to advance the larger plot line more than it actually did. Perhaps Bradley is introducing characters who will reappear later in the series. All are well and good except that the ending seems to indicate that nothing that happened in this book is important at all. This book is complete fluff, albeit pleasantly entertaining fluff, and it feels a bit like Bradley had a deadline to meet but wasn’t really ready to continue the larger, vastly more interesting story revolving around Flavia’s family history.
That’s what’s missing. Her family, her friends, and the old, mildewy, run-down Buckshaw that contains her laboratory. What has elevated Bradley’s series above your run-of-the-mill child-protagonist mysteries before were the complexities, cruelties, and heart of Flavia’s relationships with her father, sisters, Dogger and Mrs. Mullet, and even her bicycle, Gladys. As the mysteries themselves have grown a bit more conventional through the books, these relationships and the history behind them have grown more deliciously and excitingly deep, and when you take that out of the novel, almost completely, you are depriving Flavia and her experiences of their emotional core, reducing her to a more interesting Nancy Drew-type.
I still enjoyed the book. It is still delightfully written, and the mystery is still intriguing and logistically sound. However, my advice to Mr. Bradley might be to take some time. We don’t need a new book every year (though we have appreciated it). What we need are the creativity and emotional heft of the first few books; in short, a return to form. So please, take the time you need to recharge and find that new story. We will be here, waiting patiently to join Flavia in the next steps of her journey.