Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Review - Alan Bradley's As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: January 6th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 416 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Flavia can not believe that she has been forced to leave Buckshaw and go all the way to Canada! Sure she's getting the honor, however dubious, of attending her mother's Alma mater, and getting to study with a world famous chemist who may or may not have killed her husband, but it's so far from home and everything familiar. She's never had to experience homesickness before. It doesn't help matters that her voyage to the school is in the hands of Ryerson Rainsmith, the chairman of Miss Bodycote's Female Academy's board of guardians, and his wife Dorsey, two people destined to die in Flavia's fevered imagination. Poison is such a lovely thing to dwell on, especially during a long transatlantic crossing. This being Flavia, the first night she arrives at the school a desiccated body is found in her room's chimney. Unlike anyone else this at least gives Flavia something familiar in this unfamiliar new world. She knows murder and she knows how to solve them. So while some things change, other things will always remain the same.

As much as I love Buckshaw, and I mean, I really love Buckshaw, I would move there if I could in an instant love it, I was both thrilled and terrified at the idea that Flavia was heading off to boarding school in Canada. My feelings were probably pretty much on par with Flavia's own. Miss Bodycote's Female Academy owes much of it's origins to that hallowed fictional institute created by Ronald Searle, St Trinian's. In fact it was Alan Bradley who turned me onto that lovely female academy where it was more likely to find dead bodies and weapons of mass destruction then well behaved gentle ladies ready to make their debut in society. In fact, looking beyond the surface of Miss Bodycote's, I'd say the two are one par, what with Harriet having attended previously, and the curriculum of the students preparing them more for a life of espionage then that of a homemaker. The two schools are almost interchangeable, you have an equal chance of getting killed at each as Flavia soon discovers.

If I had one real complaint about As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust it's that Bradley doesn't properly exploit this new school setting. Instead we get Flavia once again investigating a murder but instead of interacting with her fellow students she quickly finds herself falling into her old habits of interacting with adults only. Previously Flavia didn't have much time for or with her peers, but I was sure that a boarding school environment would force this upon her and hilarity would ensue. Initially it did. The late night Ouija board session which she rigs for her own purposes is some of the most thrilling and hilarious writing to ever flow out of Bradley's books and then the momentum he created is squandered. Couldn't she have gone to classes and done some homework? Found a little happiness with people her own age? Apparently not. The classmates are brushed aside, the adults are questioned, and Flavia is expelled.

This last bit is the most annoying conclusion I could imagine happening. Here we finally have Flavia getting ready to take on the world, to move her story forward, and instead I fear it's going to stagnate because it took one step forward and then two steps back. I can't decide why Bradley did this. Because I don't think Flavia's homesickness warranted this result. Yes, the first six books were a solid arc and the length of Bradley's original contract, but the contract got extended. So now we have a further four books, well three now. By having Flavia leave home I thought, wow, now she can grow up a little. Can you just imagine how much fun Flavia will be as an adult when the Cold War is really starting to gear up? I expect hijinks on the level of Chuck Barris's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. This, of course, is all my wishful thinking. But by having Flavia return home, ug. Bad idea. I might have loved this book and Flavia but I did not love where we left her. I want these final four books to be something new, the "next chapter" not the same old same old.

As for the murder itself. I felt that this was easily the weakest of the murders in the whole series. Though the truth is the murder is never the most important aspect of Flavia's books to me, they are a major part of the story and need to hold my attention nonetheless. Yes, there isn't really any new way to kill someone under the sun. If you can think of it, well, in all likelihood it has been thought of before, and most likely by Agatha Christie. Ah, Agatha, you wily lady you, thinking up all the greatest plot twists so that even if someone isn't meaning to they emulate you in same way, shape, or form, they somehow do. In this case it's Dead Man's Folly and your wunderkind sleuth Poirot, and it was a case of really very bad timing.

I actually have a hard time remembering the whodunits of Agatha Christie, they all kind of blend together after awhile so they are eminently re-readable. But as fate would have it the adaptation of Dead Man's Folly filmed at Christie's own home Greenway Estate and staring David Suchet aired at the same time that I received the arc of As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust from NetGalley. While it's not exactly the same, it couldn't be identical having been written by two very different and talented writers, well, there was enough similarity that any surprise or suspense was lost because of my foreknowledge. Yes, I know that I am really really good at figuring things out and knowing what's going to happen, but gosh darnit, sometimes I just wish I could be surprised. And while I look forward to my next adventure with Flavia, I hope there's some surprises in store for me.


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