Wow, that wasn’t what I was expecting AT ALL. In a good way. For me, this is the best of the series.
So, fair warning, this review will be chock-a-block full of spoilers, so stay away, far far away if you don’t want to get spoiled all to hell.
Usually, I try not to put spoilers (at least, ones involving twists and resolutions of the plot) in my reviews, but in this case, it’s impossible to say what I want to say without talking about several key elements of the plot. If you’re wondering whether you should read this book, obviously I think the answer is yes, and that’s really all you need from this review. If you’ve already read it, or just don’t mind being spoiled, or even if you’re curious and like spoiling yourself on purpose, by all means, read on.
First things first, I had assumed after the ending to the last book that Harriet had been found alive — Bradley was deliberately vague in his wording, and for that I curse him. May his socks never stay up on his legs. I’d suspected for a while that Harriet was some sort of spy, and after the ending to the last book, had convinced myself she’d been found alive after having been prisoner for years, as Flavia’s father had been. I was all ready for Flavia to meet her long-lost mother, and all the conflicts and tensions that would come along with that, while still allowing for a fairy-tale ending. But I should have known better. This is not that sort of story. This is the sort of story where death is a main character, and grief and melancholy his sidekicks. This isn’t a story about a precocious little girl getting her mother back, but a story of loss and disillusionment, of growing older.
Because of course Harriet is dead, and it’s merely her remains that travel home to Buckshaw so that her family may finally be released from the Limbo of having a loved one who is only ‘missing’ (but presumed dead). For my part, the realization that my assumptions had been wrong hit me like a punch to the gut.
The actual plot of The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is the most mystery-lite book in the Flavia de Luce series (and that’s saying something). There is a man who is pushed under a train at the beginning of the book, but his death is overshadowed by the arrival of Harriet’s casket, and the presence of Winston Churchill (yes, that one). And Flavia ends up solving his murder more as an afterthought (and after Inspector Hewitt, might I add, which is a first). Instead of poking around like she usually does when death lurks in her vicinity, Flavia is mostly only concerned with her mother, Harriet. Piecing together the strange behaviors of the De Luce clan, her mother’s last days, and finally get hard, cold facts about her mother’s disappearance all those years before. And that’s not even mentioning her scheme to resurrect her mother with chemistry and present her to her father on the day of the funeral as a surprise.
It’s moments like that one that make me love this series. Flavia is on the brink of adulthood in this book, and yet she’s still innocently optimistic in the flexibility of reality (or maybe the possibilities of the imagination) enough to believe that her beloved chemistry has the power to bring her mother back to life. If only her mother’s body had been preserved in that glacier . . . Of course, she abandons her plan to revive her mother, derailed by real life, and by her own set of realizations about her family, her mother’s life and death, and the fact that she’s actually growing up. It was fascinating and not a little moving to watch as she coped with her lingering feelings of invincible childhood schemes at the same time she was being invaded by the more adult feelings of finality and loss, grief and responsibility.
The wrap-up of the mystery was a bit too quick, and as I noted before, Flavia is much more passive in this one, but I didn’t mind. The rich amount of emotional depth more than makes up for the lack of trickery and puzzling out of clues. With all the plot holes closed from the other five books, you’d think this was the final book in the seires: Harriet’s will. The fate of Buckshaw. Why Flavia’s sisters resent her so much. Why her father never talks to her. Why her laboratory is always perfectly stocked, etc.
This was originally supposed to be the final book in the series, but Bradley expanded his contract, I believe, to another set of six books several years ago. Before I read this book, I wasn’t looking forward to those next books. I wasn’t looking forward to watching the mystery of Harriet dragged out over even more interminable space. I wasn’t looking forward to having Flavia participate in even more unlikely murders in her tiny village, or to watching her linger in childhood longer just so Bradley could milk her for more money. All of those concerns were answered in this book, however, and Flavia’s future lies in Canada now, at the school her mother attended that was “the making of her.”
I’m excited to see where Bradley takes this series in the future. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s still fun, and the decision to finish so many storylines and drastically shake up the status quo of his series leads me to believe Flavia’s in safe hands.