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by Alan Bradley
Doubleday Canada, February 2018
368 pages
$29.95 CAD
ISBN: 0385678444

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

About ten years ago, the then seventy-year-old debut novelist Alan Bradley caused a minor sensation when he won the MWA Debut Dagger for his then-unfinished SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE, which marked the first appearance of the eleven-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce. Bradley went on to sign a contract for six novels and here we are reading the ninth of Flavia's investigations.

SWEETNESS was set in 1950 or thereabouts. This one comes a couple of years later, after the death of George VI and before the Coronation, so Flavia must be twelve or thirteen. But quite a lot has happened to age her a bit. In particular, her father has died and Flavia, like her sisters, is still grieving his loss. She also is now the sole heir to the crumbling family home, Buckshaw, and her domineering aunt is demanding it be sold at once and the household broken up in ways that suit Aunt Felicity and no one else. Flavia is so depressed that she reviews her extensive knowledge of poisons to select the most effective and least unpleasant way to do herself in.

But her father's former comrade in arms and now family retainer, Dogger, has a better solution - a holiday on the river, drifting along with packed lunches and lemonade. Knowing Flavia, he has arranged it so they will spend the night in the village made recently notorious when its vicar slipped three of his female parishioners communion from a poisoned chalice.

But before they put ashore, Flavia, trailing her hand in the water, snags a corpse, who turns out to be a young man dressed improbably in a silken costume and named Orlando. Immediately cheered and hoping to have come across another murder, she and Dogger devise an ingenious improvised experiment to prove that Orlando did not drown but was indeed poisoned. But the case is not so quickly resolved.

Readers who have faithfully followed Flavia's career over the years will be pleased that though she is for the moment away from home, much remains unchanged. She and her sisters are still often at odds, though their shared mourning has brought them somewhat closer. Flavia is still obsessed with chemical reactions, especially those of the lethal variety, even if she is for the moment deprived of her laboratory. Dogger is still Dogger. And the crime they both uncover is complex and difficult to solve and may put Flavia's life at risk.

But change is creeping in and Flavia is beginning to grow up. Whether the series can withstand this development remains to be seen, but I found that a teen-aged Flavia was less palatable than the essentially innocent eleven-year-old who opened the series. A comment like this, for example, grates a bit. Flavia is ordering a ginger beer in a country pub:

"And if it's not too much trouble, I'd like it warmed on the back of the cooker for three minutes."

It's always a good idea to demand some quirky service, to let them know that you're not just anybody.

If she's not careful, Flavia may turn out to be another Aunt Felicity.

Bradley has left the gate open for a future for Flavia, one that will involve Bradshaw. I will be curious to see how well Flavia wears in the full bloom of her adolescence.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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