Reviews by L. J. Roberts

ALAN BRADLEY – The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. Flavis de Luce #9. Delacorte, hardcover, January 2018. Setting: England, 1952.

First Sentence:   I am on my deathbed.

   Flavia de Luce, her two sisters and Dogger, their loyal family servant, go on holiday to the hamlet of Volesthorpe. Drifting in a boat on the river, hand in the water, Flavia becomes snagged on what she imagines is Hemingway’s great marlin from “The Old Man and the Sea.” Even more to Flavia’s style, is the discovery that her hand caught in the mouth of a corpse. The dead man was the son of the local church’s Canon, who was hanged for poisoning three of his parishioners; the church ladies. But was the Canon really guilty? And who killed his son? What better than a murder investigation to take Flavia’s mind off her troubles?

   The first thing one should remember about Flavia is that she is 14 years old, brilliant and highly dramatic. She is also wonderfully written by Bradley who has created the perfect voice for her, and the perfect opening. As with most series, one does best to read the books in order. However, Bradley ensured first-time readers are fully introduced to the characters, their roles, and are brought quickly up to date.

   Some may find Flavia’s viewpoint a bit uncomfortable— “Most people probably never stop to think about why our burial places are so green. But if they ever did, their faces might turn the very shade of that graveyard grass… For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” the Bible tells us. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” says The Book of Common Prayer. But both of these books, having been written mostly in good taste, fail to mention either the stinking jelly or the oozing liquids and the gaseous phases through which each of us must pass on our way to the Great Beyond.”

   Yet for others of us, it is that perspective which makes her unique and delightful, and the way in which Flavia comes across the first body is very bit Flavia.

   Bradley’s use of humor shows through in most situation, including his metaphors— “But, believe it or not, at that very instant, an idea came flying out of nowhere and landed on my head, like a pigeon on a statue of Lord Nelson.” The inclusion of rare and unusual bits of information, such as how one can cause oneself to blush, add to that which makes Bradley’s writing so delightful.

   We do see changes and growth in the characters. It is nice that we see a new side of Flavia’s sister, Feeley, at the same time as does she. We realize that Dogger is, in some ways, an older and more experienced version of Flavia. Although set in the 1950s, we are made aware of how recent was WWII, and of its impact through Dogger’s incidence with PTSD. It’s nice to see him develop as a character who is coming into his own. He is observant, rather wise; a father-figure, friend and advisor to Flavia— “I love it when Dogger talked like this. It made me feel that we were partners.” Flavia is gaining some self-awareness and is maturing, yet Flavia is a character one either loves, or finds rather terrifying, or both.

   In spite of the title and the humor, this is no cozy. The mystery, and the investigation, is well-plotted and executed, with red herrings and well-done suspense. Bradley always plays fair with the readers, laying out the clues as we read.

   The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is a captivating and delightful read, with a maturing Flavia, and a wonderful ending that leaves one very anxious for the next book.