After reading Alan Bradley’s Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d last month, I decided to move quickly on to the next in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. This is the ninth Flavia novel and brings me completely up to date with the series (for now; another book is due early next year).
In this book, our twelve-year-old detective is coming to terms with the terrible news she received at the end of the previous novel. Along with her two elder sisters, Feely and Daffy (Ophelia and Daphne), and her father’s old friend and servant, Dogger, Flavia is taking a boating trip to try to relax and recover from the shock. Trailing her hands in the water as they sail down the river, Flavia suddenly feels her fingers get caught between teeth – it seems that she has discovered yet another dead body. Being Flavia, she is more excited than repulsed, and when the corpse of a young man is pulled to the shore she can’t wait to find out how and why he died.
The dead man is Orlando Whitbread, an aspiring actor with a local theatre company. As Flavia delves more deeply into Orlando’s background, she discovers links with a murder that took place several years earlier. In her usual way, she sets about searching for clues and speaking to suspects – but this time she has some help. It seems that Dogger has been carrying out some investigations of his own and is proving to be Flavia’s equal as a detective, while Daffy, who is never to be found without her nose in a book, offers her assistance in solving some literary clues. This is something new for Flavia, for whom crime-solving has always been a very solitary activity.
We see more of Dogger in this book than ever before and he and Flavia are working together almost as equals, but I was particularly happy with the improvement in her relationship with Daffy. She is getting on better with her other sister too, and for the first time seems to be appreciating that there’s more to Feely than meets the eye. Maybe it has taken some family tragedies to make them overcome their differences – or maybe they are all just growing up. There have certainly been some changes in Flavia and she has come a long way from the tantrum-throwing eleven-year-old she was at the beginning of the series. On the other hand, I think she’s less fun as a character and maybe that’s why I can’t help feeling that the last few books in the series have lacked the charm of the earlier ones. That charm was important because it was what kept me reading and loving the Flavia books, even when the mysteries weren’t particularly strong.
The mystery in this one is slightly more complex than some of the others and I enjoyed meeting the characters who are drawn into it, such as Hob Nightingale, the undertaker’s son, and Mrs Palmer, a published poet who befriends Daffy. I found the final solution a bit unconvincing, however – the reasons for both the original murder and Orlando’s death seemed quite weak. Back to Flavia’s personal story, though, and this book has a much happier ending than the previous one! There were hints that the series might be about to go in an intriguing new direction, but I will have to wait for book 10, The Golden Tresses of the Dead, to find out.