Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley--a Flavia de Luce Novel

I rated this 3 stars, although it might be a 3.5. 

First of all--what happens? The overarching pall of the series is lifted--we learn the fate of Flavia's mother Harriet. Harriet's absence has been of major importance to the family generally and to Flavia specifically. Flavia was so young when Harriet disappeared that she has no memories of her mother at all. Meanwhile, her older sisters have tormented her with this fact, alternatively accusing her of being the reason Harriet left, or claiming that she was adopted. In either case, Flavia feels the lack of her mother acutely, and she dreams of the possibility that Harriet will someday return.

More broadly, Haviland de Luce has mourned his lost wife for ten years, remaining remote and unapproachable, leaving his daughters to essentially raise themselves. The family estate is also in limbo, as Harriet's presumed death and lack of a will have created such a tax burden that the family lives basically in poverty. Harriet's absence makes the entire premise of the series possible. At the end of the previous book, the de Luces receive a telephone call, which Father reports "Your mother has been found."

The first five chapters of this book describe the preparations for her return--a special train, military escort, etc. etc. Which seems odd, until you realize that Harriet is, in fact, dead and it is her body being returned to Buckshaw. And, of course, that was exactly what you expected, except that you hoped otherwise. 

Harriet is also obviously more than just a "missing mum." The military honors, the security provided by the British Home Office, the special train, and Winston Churchill on the platform. Up until now (if I am recalling correctly), Harriet's disappearance has been treated as if it were the unfortunate result of an adventurous spirit who couldn't remain at home tending to children when there were mountains to climb and Tibet to explore. She was an aviatrix, an English Amelia Earhart, who simply never returned. Now, however, we are learning that she had an official role--and she disappeared while on a mission for England during WWII. This is not just a domestic tragedy, and the world beyond Bishop's Lacey and Buckshaw has entered the picture.

This coincides with a deeper focus on Flavia's character as well. Flavia is nearing her 12th birthday, and without trying, seems to be maturing. She has begun to see behind the surfaces of her family members and is beginning to show some real empathy. It's a welcome development--she remains fixedly eccentric as ever, but is somewhat less combative.

In developmental terms, her emotional intelligence is starting to catch up with her I.Q.

Regularly throughout the novel, she notices things about her family that had escaped her before. Watching her father navigate the funeral arrangements in his deep grief, she realizes that "the more he felt, the less he showed." He was not merely an absentee parent even while present--he was a complicated man dealing with enormous sadness. Flavia also stops to notice that her eldest sister Ophelia is quite beautiful, and she shares a hug with Daphne as they each find comfort in the other. 

Other family members arrive as well, including Haviland's sister Aunt Felicity, and Harriet's sister Lena, who also brings her young and precocious daughter Undine to Buckshaw. Undine is less a character in her own right than a reproduction of Flavia--young, bright, bored, and obnoxious. She exists almost entirely to show how Flavia has grown, since rather than recognize herself in the child, Flavia is annoyed by her. Instead of responding sympathetically, Flavia begins to adopt the tactics her sisters used against her, engaging in a battle of one-upmanship. And not always winning.

The book begins to reveal the backstory of Flavia's parents, both fighting in the Pacific, where Haviland was captured by the Japanese and subjected to the horrors of the POW camps. Harriet toured those prisons and the two managed to meet without giving themselves away. Harriet never made it home; Haviland did, a broken and grief-paralyzed shell. These are the stories that Flavia is hearing for the first time, expanding her world and changing her perception of her place in it.

It is no coincidence that this is the book where she flies in her mother's old Gipsy Moth plane as well. Bradley describes how the world looks different, and smaller, from the air, familiar and changed at the same time, without hammering the metaphor. Flavia's vision has expanded.

As a character study, this book is far more successful than I would have expected. The changes are not forced, and are scattered among the reliable standards of the series--her fascination with poison, battles with her sisters, extra-long descriptions of recondite chemical tests and facts.  

However, the book as a whole feels clumsily stitched together--there are set pieces that remain well written and engaging, but they fail to connect with each other either logically or emotionally. This is especially damaging to the mystery aspect of the book--too often the book drops narrative elements and fails to pick them up again, or fails to treat them consistently.

This most egregious example happens at the end of the novel, during the funeral service. Earlier, Flavia  found Harriet's oil skin wallet, which happened to contain her will. While running chemical tests on the wallet itself, Flavia found invisible writing that seems to spell "Lens Palace." Then, while sitting in church and gazing at a stained glass window of Samson and Delilah, Flavia notices that the gothic script under the window is hard to read--the M looks like a W, for example. With that, she realizes that "Lens Palace" is actually "Lena de Luce," and her aunt is the one who killed Harriet. 

The service then requires that she walk to the chancel, where she stumbles, and when she looks up after catching herself, she sees three police officers advancing on the murderer, who then bolts.

But we don't know why this is happening now. How did the police suddenly decide that Lena needed to be arrested? Flavia hasn't told them her thinking, nor have they seen the clues she has. The murderer hasn't done anything to give herself away, and the stumble is not a prearranged signal or anything. There is no reason why the police are acting at this particular point in the funeral service, rather than before or afterwards. Whatever logical method the police used to solve the mystery remains unexplained, while Flavia's solution is also not communicated to anybody either. So why does the murderer suddenly lose nerve and bolt? No reason is given, which feels like a cheat. I mean, Sherlock Holmes wouldn't solve a mystery, only to be told that the criminal has already been arrested for some unconnected matter. Like littering? 

Which is too bad, because while the series is certainly an exploration of Flavia's character growth, it is also a murder mystery series, and solving the murder needs to remain satisfying.

There is also a scene where Flavia walks out of her house (Buckshaw) and across the lawn to where two characters are working on an airplane. There is no reason why she goes at that particular time, and once she is there, she simply looks at them and then walks away. As far as I can tell, there is no reason for the whole scene. Why is it there? It doesn't amount to any sort of clue, it seems oddly out of character for Flavia to just walk out of the house at that moment for no reason.

There are a couple of other clunky matters as well. The first is the death of the man at the train station. As Harriet's coffin is being unloaded, a strange man in a long coat approaches Flavia, recognizing her as the spitting image of Harriet. He attempts to give her a warning: "Tell your father that the Gamekeeper is in trouble. The Nide is under…" something interrupts him, and then he is pushed beneath the train to his death. Flavia is the first to his side, and describes the sad sight of his arm above the platform, the golden hairs blowing in the breeze. 

So despite this chilling experience, and the clear invitation to investigate (who is the Gamekeeper? What is a Nide?) Flavia doesn't even think about the event much at all. I accept that she doesn't tell her father, allowing him to grieve without distraction for a while, but I find it very hard to believe that she doesn't even think about what it all might mean, or try to figure out who to interview who might have some information. She never even tries to figure out what the police might know about him. She just lets an obvious murder drop--this is not the Flavia we have known for the last five books.

Another oddity is her quest to revive her mother. Nuts, of course, her belief that she might be able to concoct a chemical mixture that would restore Harriet to life, but she takes it seriously, and Bradley devotes quite a large chunk of narrative to her quest. One chapter is spent detailing her research into the use of thiamine, based on some cryogenic experiments of her great uncle Tarquin, detailed in the notebooks in her chemistry lab. There is a short sequence where she learns a jujitsu move from her father's "man" Dogger: a blow that she believes will jolt a corpse back to life. There is another chapter spent trying to obtain the chemicals, first from the apothecary and then from the local doctor. The apothecary refuses her, but his reclusive sister (wife?) slips her the substance, claiming it is repayment of a debt to Harriet. The doctor happens to be carrying the other chemicals in his bag when he nearly hits Flavia at an intersection. It was a dosage for a patient who just died, so he simply hands it over.

These are almost suspiciously easy, and Flavia speculates that perhaps Harriet herself is assisting the project, supernaturally.

This is about four chapters of preparation, and doesn't include all the logistics about the family standing vigil with Harriet's coffin, what hours they are on duty, how Flavia manipulates Ophelia into switching shifts, and then how Flavia runs the line of mourners off. There is yet another chapter of Flavia opening the coffin, cutting through the inner zinc liner, and seeing her mother's face for the first time. (There is an explanation of how this is even possible after ten years, involving the body being originally preserved on the icy glacier, then packed in dry ice for transport and preservation.)

At this point, we have followed this plot for dozens and dozens of pages, with all its numerous steps and Flavia's confused motives--she would like to have the chance to have a mother, she would like to return Harriet to Haviland to ease his sadness, she would like to be a hero--this is a major component of the book. Sure, it's nuts to think that she could actually succeed, but the quest has become narratively hefty.

Which makes the denouement of it so disappointing. Just as she has looked at her mother's face, there is a knock on the door of the room, and (after some swift tidying up of the area) Flavia opens the door to find her father and two Home Office officials who insist on taking over the area and ejecting the family.

And Flavia doesn't even seem bothered in the least. This whole plan, the whole emotional need for a mother, all the work she has put into trying to revive her mother--gets foiled by the intrusion of a couple of goons, and Flavia simply walks away. She doesn't try again later, she doesn't try to snoop on the officers to find out why they are there (and we never learn it either)--in fact its only after quite a few scenes that she mentions that she lost her chance to try. And it's treated off-handedly, shrugged off as a missed chance.

I just can't believe that. Flavia wouldn't ignore the murder of a man on the train platform, especially after he gave her such a cryptic warning. Nor would she just walk away from the kind of major project that revivifying Harriet became. Maybe--just maybe--she would give up if she doubted it was possible--but the book doesn't make that case either. 

These feel like authorial slips to me, rather than evidence of Flavia maturing. It's as though Bradley crafted the chunks of the story, but ran out of time to link them together convincingly. Which is frustrating, because the elements of greatness are there! Flavia is a fascinating character, and the mystery is gripping. 


cgrant said...

Thank you so much for your explanation of the plot and listing of major plot holes. I agree that the abandonment of the plan to revive Harriet is a gaping is almost like the first half is one novel, and the second half is a completely different one, only held together by the gatekeeper and the nide mystery. Also, the fact that Harriet's own sister murdered her is never really explored or likened to the (seeming) hatred between Flavia and her own sisters. I still thoroughly enjoyed listening to the book and just enjoyed the writing for the wriing's sake, I didn't let the plot problems deter me.

Bill MacLean said...

I really like this series, so I don't enjoy criticizing this book, but the plot holes in this book were kind of a let-down. That Flavia would even consider trying to revive her mother doesn't make sense to me. Flavia is extremely intelligent and in many ways wise beyond her years. Even a typical 11 or 12 year old would recognize the absurdity of the resuscitation idea. No matter how much Flavia wanted to "fix" everything, I can't see her working on a completely impossible project.

I think Bradley needed some way for Flavia to open the casket get the will that didn't seem completely ghoulish, but I didn't like the concept.

The other scene that bothered me was when the "card ice was melting and drops of water were falling to the oaken floor . . ." If card ice is dry ice (frozen CO2) it wouldn't melt, but would sublimate and turn back to C02. This seems like a minor point, but given Flavia's knowledge of chemistry, it's a pretty big mistake that could have easily been avoided.