Flavia 006: The Dead in their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley

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Trains, planes and automobiles, along with Winston Churchill and a military escort greeted Hillary de Luce upon her return to her husband, her daughters and her ancestral estate: Buckshaw. Thus began episode 006 of the Flavia de Luce Mystery Series. Alan Bradley had left Flavia, his protagonist, the youngest of those de Luce daughters, dangling at the conclusion of volume 005, only to have her land in volume 006 with one foot in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and the other in Kim’s Game as described by Rudyard Kipling.

The Dead in their Vaulted Arches introduced major plot shifts, revelations, reconciliations and retributions. Relics of the past flickered and flew into view, unveiling secrets that stretched back through three hundred years of de Luce history and service to king and country.  Flavia’s new and more durable personal nemesis emerged, Undine: younger, equal and opposite, perhaps brighter and potentially more dangerous than Flavia. Was she a usurper, a snoop or just a lonely child looking for a friend?

Flavia passed through a substantial stage of metamorphosis to an elevated sense of power and confidence and yet at times she was more flustered than she had ever been. Most importantly, she did emerge as a far more formidable Flavia as she began her trek toward volume 007.

Reviews of mysteries, especially a series in which the initiated would have shunned spoilers other than those offered by the publisher, must focus on style rather than substance. Alan Bradley often invited the reader to tea, a break in the action, an apparent distraction, where the author installed words in place as would a jeweler carefully set a variety of brilliant stones within the gold of a magnificent brooch. There was no better way to review Bradley’s skill than to quote the author on various aspects of volume 006, or as he would have had Flavia say, “Let’s take another squint…”

At their current situation:

We were told the when, the where, and the how of everything, but never the why.

Churchill…still had certain secrets which he kept even from God.

Logical beyond question but at the same time mad as a March hare

At her father:

Windows were as essential to my father’s talking as his tongue.

He stood frozen in his own private glacier.

Father, the checkmated king, gracious, but fatally wounded in defeat

(With Churchill) These two seemingly defeated men, brothers in something I could not even begin to imagine.

At her sister Ophelia:

The image of bereaved beauty, she simply glowed with grief.

Feely had the knack of being able to screw one side of her face into a witchlike horror while keeping the other as sweet and demure as a maiden from Tennyson.

She knew me as well as the magic mirror knew the wicked queen.

Her complexion—at least since its volcanic activity settled down

Her voice suddenly as cold and stiff as whipped egg whites

At Flavia on Flavia:

I wanted to curl up like a salted slug and die.

I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand in case of overlooked jam or drool.

One of the marks of a truly great mind…is to be able to feign stupidity on demand.

The comforting reek of nitrocellulose lacquer

It smelled as if a coffee house in the slums of Hell had been hit by lightning.

That bump in her bloomers was me! (A comment on a photo of her pregnant mother)

My emotions were writhing inside me like snakes in a pit.

There is a strange strength in secrets which can never be achieved by spilling one’s guts.

I slept the sleep of the damned, tossing and turning as if I were lying in a bed of smoldering coals.

My mouth tasted as if a farmer had stored turnips in it while I slept.

My brain came instantly up to full throttle.

There are few instances in life where, in spite of everything, one had to swallow one’s heart and go it alone, and this was one of them.

Giving praise at every silent step for the invention of carpets

My knees gave off an alarming crack.

At flying:

And with a roar the propeller disappeared in a blur.

The roar became a tornado and we began to move.

And then a sudden smoothness…we were flying!

Beneath our wings the marvelous toy world slid slowly by…miniature sheep grazed in handkerchief pastures.

At trains:

The gleaming engine panted into the station and squealed to a stop at the edge of the platform.

(The train) sat resting for a few moments in the importance of its own swirling steam.

At music:

Each note hung for an instant like a cold, crystalline drop of water melting from the end of an icicle.

Humming mindlessly to herself like a hive of distant bees

The music faded and died among the beams and king posts of the ancient roof.

The organ fell silent as if suddenly embarrassed at what it had done.

At children:

They had lost more than one baby in the making and I could only pray that the next one would be a howling success.

“You’re a child.” “Of course I am, but that’s hardly a reason to treat me like one.”

As we await volume 007, we might expect a twelve-year-old Flavia who would have behaved not so much as her teen-aged sisters but as her mother Harriet. The relevance of the photo of Churchill’s statue in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada will become apparent to the readers of volume 006.

Bradley, Alan. The Dead in their Vaulted Arches. New York: Delacorte Press, 2014.

(© 2014 Donald J. Mulcare)

The Monument

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In the distance ahead, a statue loomed amid the park benches and the ubiquitous, tame, mendicant, municipal pigeons.

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From the looks of it I judged: “This bronze must honor a politician. Who else would have the supreme confidence to strut his stuff like this?” As a visitor, ignorant of local celebrities, I ventured, he’s probably a former Mayor of Halifax, perhaps a Premier. Soon enough, I could see his familiar face, grand, determined; untroubled by the rain. He had weathered many a storm in his day. We remember him still.

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The Rockets’ Red Glare

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A gentleman, perhaps a trustee of The Old Burying Grounds in Halifax, Nova Scotia pointed out the tomb of this cemetery’s most distinguished resident: Major General Robert Ross. The gentleman added that Ross’ troops had burned the Whitehouse and the Capitol in Washington, DC and inspired part of the U. S. National Anthem. He said “assassins” shot Ross near Baltimore. His body preserved in a keg of Jamaican rum, was transported to Halifax where it rests in peace beneath this rained soaked stone. See the entire tomb below, as it looked in May, 2013.

Ross personally led his forces into battle and employed the latest innovations in weaponry against the forces of the newly formed United States of America. Rockets routed the American Militiamen during the Battle of Bladensburg, opening the path for the capture of Washington, DC during the War of 1812.

Ross’ rockets also inspired Francis Scott Key as he wrote the words to “The Star Spangled Banner.” Key negotiated with Ross for the release of an American prisoner, aboard a British ship of war. Ross extended an invitation to dinner, the scene of these amicable negotiations. Key was then given a ring-side seat for the storming of Fort McHenry during a night attack on Baltimore, in which Key observed the ferocious rockets’ red glare.

Unfortunately for Ross, as he led his forces into Baltimore, American snipers mortally wounded him in battle. Which sharpshooter deserves credit or blame we’ll never know since they both fired at the same time and both stuck Ross who subsequently died.

The tomb cover shown above mentions “Rosstrevor,” the site of Ross’ memorial obelisk in County Down, Northern Ireland. Another grand memorial to Ross stands in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. Even the U. S. Capitol’s rotunda memorializes Ross with a portrait.

May he rest in peace.

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The Noon Gun

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The Citadel, an eight-cornered star, double-walled fortress guards Halifax harbor and the city against the menace of invaders. It now appears as it did between 1869 and 1871 when the 78th Highland Regiment Afoot and the 3rd Brigade, Royal Artillery defended her.

Since the military personnel, for the most part lacked watches, cannon fire marked the noon hour, a tradition maintained every day since 1856, with the exception of Christmas day. An evening volley summoned the soldiers back to the Citadel from the various drinking establishments down the hill. Pipes and drums announced the other hours of the day.

A private in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces earned 13 pence a day. Of these, 12 pence were returned to the paymaster to cover charges for clothing, room and board, leaving one penny to spend. A penny in those days bought 3 pints of ale. I see you’re wondering about inflation right now, but you can also understand why the ale houses flourished in the neighborhood of the Citadel.

Married soldiers brought their wives and children into the barracks. The married couple occupied the same space as a single soldier. With the couple at close quarters on the bed, the children slept under it. This practice stopped with the advent of the camera. When photos of cramped quarters reached potential recruits, enlistments fell off. Consequently, married soldiers’ barracks came to occupy Barrack Street, not far from the entrance to the Citadel.

Neatness: spit and polish to be exact, were the rule. To their credit, the re-enactors maintain this tradition. This became clear to me after a visit to the tailor shop. A seamstress gave me a private tour of the premises. In particular she explained the fabrication of the red doublet worn by the infantry. The outer shell had been sewn together in England and then custom finished at the Citadel as a heavy woolen jacket. The chevrons, insignia and buttons indicated regiment, rank, years of service and specialty. However, the new buttons had not been polished. The seamstress fitted the re-enactor with his or her doublet and then it was up to the re-enactor to shine the buttons, and shine they did, in order to match the brilliance of these excellent university students working for the spring and summer at the Citadel.

The seamstress, an actual skilled tailor knew her business and had a few stories to tell. It seems that Queen Elizabeth II visited Halifax a few years back. The Prime Minister also attended the event. Needless to say, the entire Citadel contingent, with pipes, drums, rifles, sabers, dirks, kilts and doublets turned out for the march down to the harbor.

Unfortunately, it rained to the point that, as the seamstress told me, “The animals began to line up two-by-two. We expected Noah and his Ark to dock at the terminal.”

As the re-enactors stood in the downpour, listening to the speeches, their woolen uniforms soaked up the deluge. Then the soggy warriors turned, about face and marched back up the hill. Imagine the smell of wet wool drying out in the locker rooms at the Citadel.

If you visit Halifax, be sure to march on the Citadel.

Thanks to the tour guide, the exhibits and the brochure  as well as the seamstress and other re-enactors for the information provided in this blog.