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)

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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 78th Pipers and Drummers at the Citadel in Halifax, Nova Scotia

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The 78th Highland Regiment Pipers and Drummers joyfully sustain the traditions of the Celtic people. Accomplished musicians all, they have spent years in training and generations in the celebration of their unique gifts. By way of introduction, the piper to the left with his back turned to you and his handy dirk sheathed on his right, leads this quintet. He began his formal training in his junior high school and then his high school’s pipe and drum band. As a college student, he continues to learn from a master at the Citadel’s School of Piping and Drumming. By the way, if you are inclined to take up the bagpipes as your life’s ambition, you may receive instruction from the Citadel’s pipe master anywhere in the world through the medium of Skype. The quintet’s lead piper himself has one student. You could become his second.

Each of the two pipers facing you in the photo has a brother drumming in this quintet. Can you tell from the picture, who is related to whom? The piper standing before the window has three stripes on his right cuff. In the original 78th Highlanders, they would indicate three years of good behavior. Today, they indicate three years of prior service as a re-enactor. So you see the quintet exhibits family traditions, years of training and sustained service.

After a performance for the Citadel’s visitors, this same piper revealed some of the secrets of the modern bagpipe. The tartan cover hides a leather bag. The modern version of the bag features a zipper and a small cardboard box containing the equivalent of moisture-absorbing, “kitty-litter.” The pipers explained that these “pipes” were made of wood, rather than ivory or plastic. The three upright “drone” pipes accompany the smaller “chanter.” The piper’s fingers play this nine note source of melody. The longer, French version of the bagpipe “chanter” extends its range of notes and chords.

The quintet members explained that the original Highland Drummers were recruited as regular soldiers. A drummer wears the red doublet with the white leather belt across his chest. The pipers were recruited by and paid by the officers, who had much more money to spend. Pipers wear the green doublet, a polished, black leather belt and have far more brass buttons than the Redcoats. Notice that a long plaid wraps about the piper’s chest, under the right arm. A brooch joins the plaid on the left shoulder. The ends of the plaid hang down well beyond the hem of the kilt. The drummers have a smaller tartan suspended from their left shoulder. The 78th wears the Mackenzie tartan in honor of its original sponsor.

Pipes and drums function not merely for parades, morale and time keeping at the Citadel. They were used to coordinate the regimental maneuvers during battle. The 78th designates one bagpipe melody as its signal to charge. The drummers also convey battlefield orders. They have a back-up system should the drum malfunction. Notice that a bugle hangs on a green lanyard slung across the drummer’s left shoulder. Each drummer carries a sword on his right side.

Attention to detail, constant practice, a profound devotion to Celtic music and traditions make the full corps of the 78th Pipers and Drummers contenders in the world championships for pipe and drum bands held in Scotland. The leader of the quintet reported that every small town in Scotland has several pipe and drum corps. Nevertheless, the Citadel’s contingent has confidently traveled to the world competition. They have my enthusiastic encouragement.