Although it is autumn in the small English town of Bishop’s Lacey, the chapel is decked with exotic flowers. Yes, Flavia de Luce’s sister Ophelia is at last getting hitched, like a mule to a wagon. “A church is a wonderful place for a wedding,” muses Flavia, “surrounded as it is by the legions of the dead, whose listening bones bear silent witness to every promise made at the altar.” Flavia is not your normal twelve-year-old girl. An expert in the chemical nature of poisons, she has solved many mysteries, sharpening her considerable detection skills to the point where she had little choice but to turn professional. So Flavia and dependable Dogger, estate gardener and sounding board extraordinaire, set up shop at the once-grand mansion of Buckshaw, eager to serve—not so simple an endeavor with her odious little moon-faced cousin, Undine, constantly underfoot. But Flavia and Dogger persevere. Little does she know that their first case will be extremely close to home, beginning with an unwelcome discovery in Ophelia’s wedding cake: a human finger.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
· O N E ·
I’d like to remark at the outset that I’m a girl with better than an average brain. Just as some people are given the gift of a singular and often quite remarkable talent—such as Violet Cornish’s uncanny ability to break wind to the tune of “Joy to the World”—I myself, in much the same way, have been blessed with the power of logical thinking. As Violet could easily confirm, it’s something you’re born with, and then improve by much practice.
The many occasions upon which I had been consulted by the constabulary had sharpened my already considerable detection skills to the point where I had little choice but to turn professional. And so I had set up with Dogger, my late father’s valet, gardener, and all-round sounding board, a small agency to which we gave the name—to signal respectability—Arthur W. Dogger & Associates.
Little did we know that our very first case would be so close to home.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning.
My sister Ophelia’s wedding was spoiled only slightly by someone calling out coarsely, as the bride floated in modest beauty up the aisle of the ancient church, “Hubba hubba, ding-ding, twenty years in Sing Sing!” The culprit was Carl Pendracka, one of Feely’s former suitors. It was his Cincinnati accent that gave him away.
We all of us pretended we hadn’t heard, except my odious, moon-faced cousin, Undine, who let out one of her long, wet, horrible, slobbering snickers, such as might have been made by a herd of cannibal cows.
More troubling, though, was when, just a few moments later—at the precise moment the vicar addressed the congregation: “If any man can show any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter forever hold his peace”—one of the carved and painted angels, from its place high among the roof beams, cried out suddenly, in the zany voice of a certain cinema cartoon character, “I do! I do! Call the police!”
It was Undine, of course, who, bored by lack of attention, decided to practice her ventriloquism—which she had been studying for some time from a sixpenny book.
Aside from that—except for the human remains—it was a beautiful occasion.
Preparations had begun far in advance. First there had been the cake.
“The weddin’ cake must be laid down ’least six months before the nup-chools,” Mrs. Mullet had said, waving a batter-coated wooden spoon at me in the kitchen. “Else the marriage’ll be poisoned.”
The mention of poison captured my undivided attention.
“What kind of poison?” I asked.
“The worst kind. The poison of leavin’ things to be done on the spurt of the moment. Just look at that Lucy Havers, as was, and then talk to me about darin’ the devil. Left it till the day before ’er weddin’ to ’ave ’er cake baked at that Bunne Shoppe in ’Inley, if you can credit it, an’ look what happened to ’er!”
I raised my eyebrows in a “What happened to her?” signal.
“ ’Er ’usband—one o’ them Simmonses, ’e was—run off with a tart from the Bunne Shoppe the day after they got ’ome from their ’oneymoon in ’Astings.”
“If it were me, I’d have run off with an apple pie,” I said, pretending I didn’t understand her meaning, a tactic I am increasingly forced to employ in order to protect my alleged innocence.
Mrs. Mullet smiled at my modesty. “Like I said, a weddin’ fruitcake must be laid down six months ahead o’ time and left to sleep in the larder till required,” she said, returning to her theme. Mrs. Mullet could be uncommonly informative when allowed to lecture uninterrupted, and I pulled up a chair to listen.
“Like layin’ the keel of a battleship,” she went on. “You mustn’t leave it till the enemy’s in sight.”
“Who’s the enemy?” I asked. “The groom?”
Mrs. Mullet laid a forefinger alongside her nose in the ancient sign of secrecy. “That’s for every woman to find out for ’erself,” she said, tapping the finger and causing her nose to give off an alarming hollow knocking sound. She lowered her voice. “And till she does, she needs all the spells she can get to keep away the Old Ones.”
The Old Ones? This was becoming truly interesting. First poisons, and now malevolent supernatural spirits. And it wasn’t yet ten o’clock in the morning!
Mrs. Mullet was now scraping the batter out of the bowl and into a large cake pan.
“Here, let me help you,” I said, reaching for the oven door.
“Not yet,” Mrs. Mullet said, surprisingly short-tempered. “First things first. Grab an ’andful o’ them sticks and toss ’em on top of the fire.
“In the basket there,” she added, pointing with the spoon, as if I hadn’t seen them.
A wicker basket beside the cooker was half filled with a tangle of twigs and branches. “Run a bit of water in the sink,” she said. “We wants ’em good an’ damp.”
I did as I was told.
“To make steam?” I asked, wondering how the steam was going to find its way from the firebox to the oven chamber.
“Somethin’ like that,” Mrs. Mullet said, as I opened the firebox and threw the wet wood on top of the fire. “An’ somethin’ else besides.”
Again, the finger beside the nose.
“Protection,” I guessed. “Against the enemy?”
“That’s right, dear,” Mrs. Mullet said. “ ’Azel and ’awthorn. I gathered ’em with my own ’ands in Gibbet Wood. Now, one more thing an’ we’re ready to pop in the cake.”
She pulled a sprig of needled leaves from the pocket of her apron. “Rosemary!” I exclaimed. I recognized it from the kitchen garden.
“That’s right, dear,” Mrs. Mullet said again, as the warm spicy odor of the herb filled the kitchen. “To remind Miss Ophelia of ’er ’ome, and all them as ’ave ever loved ’er. Rosemary in the oven for the cake and rosemary in ’er bouquet. It also ’elps keep off the ’obgoblins.”
“I thought rosemary was for funerals,” I said.
I remembered that because Daffy was always quoting Shakespeare.
“An’ so it is, dear. Funerals and weddin’s both. That’s why it’s such an ’andy ’erb to ’ave round the ’ouse. Which is why we grows it in the kitchen garden. If we wants it for weddin’s we soaks it in scented water and braids it into the bride’s veil and bouquet. For funerals, we wets it with rainwater an’ tosses it into the open grave on top of the coffin.
“We also tucks a bit of it into the shroud,” she added. “If we ’ave one, of course, which most of us doesn’t nowadays, what with it bein’ charged as an extra expense by the undertakers.”
“And the hazel sticks?” I asked.
“Guarantees descendants,” she said, her face suddenly serious.
Poor Feely, I thought. Alone upstairs at this very moment, innocently picking her pimples in a sterling silver hand mirror without the faintest idea that the cook was in the kitchen, already fiddling with her future. It almost made me feel sorry for my sister.
“Now don’t ask me no more pesky questions,” Mrs. Mullet said. “I’ve got four more layers to bake an’ dinner to get started for you lot.”
“What about the hawthorn?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer. It is believed by some—but not by me—that the haws, or berries, and the flowers of the hawthorn preserve in their smell the stench of the Great Plague of London, whereas I, with my scientific mind, know perfectly well that both haws and flowers of the tree contain a substantial quantity of trimethylamine, which is the chemical compound responsible for the smell of putrefaction.
“Never you mind,” Mrs. Mullet said. “Ask me no questions and I shall tell you no lies.”
It was her standard response to any question whose expected answer had to do with the birds and the bees.
“Thanks, Mrs. M,” I said cheerfully. “It’s just as I suspected.”
And I skipped out of the kitchen before she could fling a piece of pastry at me.
Anyway, as I was saying, the wedding was . . . well . . . interesting.
Although it was autumn, St. Tancred’s was decked with exotic flowers: early narcissi, show pinks, and snapdragons, all flown in for the occasion from the Isles of Scilly by Feely’s godfather, Bunny Spirling, a dear old friend of our late father. Feely had asked Bunny to give her away.
“If only it were for keeps,” I had remarked when she told me the news.
“Silence, you suppurating cyst!” Feely had shot back. “What makes you think it won’t be? You may never ever see me again.”
“Oh, you’ll be back,” I told her. “There are two things in life that can be counted upon to return: a married sister and the smell of drains. Quite frankly, I’d prefer the drains.”
I shot Dieter a sidelong wink to let him know I bore him no hard feelings. You can’t punish a basically decent chap simply for marrying the resident witch.
But to get back to the wedding . . .
There had been a last-minute panic when it was discovered, ten minutes before the scheduled time, that Dieter’s best man had still not arrived.
“He’ll turn up,” Dieter said. “Reggie is an honorable man.”
“Like Brutus?” Daffy had blurted. Daffy sometimes has the habit of putting her mouth in gear before engaging her brain.
Reggie Mould was the British pilot who had shot Dieter down and was, therefore, the cause of Dieter’s remaining in England after the war. They had since become fast friends and shared, like all pilots, that mystic brotherhood of the air.
Dieter took Daffy and me aside. “You mustn’t be surprised when you meet Reggie. He’s a member of the Guinea Pig Club.”
We both of us looked at Dieter blankly.
“After he bagged me, Reggie himself went down into the Channel in flames. He was very badly burned. He spent ages in Queen Victoria Hospital. You have probably read about it.”
We shook our heads.
“Dr. McIndoe worked miracles with skin grafts. . . .”
A shadow crossed his face.
“But still . . .” he added, trailing off into some silent memory of his own.
“Don’t stare,” I said, grasping his meaning immediately.
Dieter’s face lit up in a glorious grin. “Exactly,” he said. “Look. Here he comes now.”
An ancient green MG with a blatting exhaust was looming at the lych-gate, and a young man extracted himself gingerly from the low-slung cockpit.
He came slowly toward us through the churchyard.
“Tallyho!” he shouted as soon as he spotted Dieter.
“Horrido!” Dieter replied.
Saint Horridus, I recalled Dieter telling me, was the patron saint of hunters and fighter pilots.
The two men hugged and slapped each other on the back—carefully, I noticed, in Dieter’s case.
“I thought I’d put paid to you the first time I had you in my sights.” Reggie laughed. “Now I’m back to jolly well finish off the job properly.”
Dieter laughed graciously, as he had learned to do since meeting my sister. “I’d like to introduce to you my sisters-in-law,” he said.
I was grateful that he hadn’t said “future.”
Even though I had been forewarned, as Reggie turned, the air went out of me.
His face was a ghastly blank: a grotesque mask of dry and fragile sheeting, as if someone had coated his skin with papier-mâché and painted it white and then red. His mouth was a round black hole.
Only the eyes were alive, sparkling mischievous fire at me from their raggedly deep dark sockets.
“Charmed,” Reggie croaked. His voice was that of a man who had breathed flames. “You’re the Shakespeare authority,” he said, offering Daffy a handshake.
“Well, not actually,” she began as Reggie turned to me.
“And you’re the poisonous one, Flavia. We must have a chat before I leave.”
Then, assuming a hissing, bloodcurdling, snakelike voice, he added: “I have dark designs on several of my lesser enemies.”
He needed to say no more. He had won my heart.
“Wizard!” I said, with a grin like the blazing sun, and trotting out the only bit of RAF slang I could remember at the moment.
Dieter then introduced Reggie to Aunt Felicity, who, offering him a cigarette, launched into a questionable RAF joke, which rather shocked me, but which I realized was meant to set Reggie instantly at ease, and to make the two of them forever comrades-in-arms.
Dieter’s parents had flown over from Germany to attend the wedding. Although his father was a publisher and his mother an archaeologist, they stood off to one side at the church door, not forgotten, but too exotic, perhaps, to be casually chatted up by the villagers of Bishop’s Lacey.
I wandered over for a few words, having learned earlier that both spoke excellent English. Complimenting their son’s fine singing voice seemed an appropriate and welcoming way to open the conversation.
“Dieter must have learned to sing at twenty thousand feet,” I said.
They looked at me blankly.
“From the angels,” I explained, and they both laughed heartily.
“We thought we had lost him to England,” Dieter’s mother confessed, “but it is comforting to know that someone has already found him.”
I wasn’t quite sure that I understood completely, but we all three of us beamed at one another like fellow magistrates.
“Your English weather is quite like our own in autumn,” Dieter’s father observed, gesturing to the beautiful day around him.
“Yes,” I said, not having enough international experience to form an opinion. “Have you been here before?”
“Oh yes,” Dieter’s father replied. “My wife and I both read Greats up at Oxford.”
Which shut my mouth.
Dieter, meanwhile, off among the tombstones, was engrossed in animated conversation with Reggie Mould, their hands tracing out zooming, swooping angles in the air.
“We’d better go inside,” I said. “Feely will be thinking we’ve abandoned her.”
And so it all began.
A church is a wonderful place for a wedding, surrounded as it is by the legions of the dead, whose listening bones bear silent witness to every promise made—and broken—at the altar.
Dead now, every last one of them, including the man who invented the rule about not putting your elbows on the dinner table. Most of these had taken their vows at this very altar, and each in his turn reduced by life and time at first to juice . . . and then to dust.
As Daffy once pointed out to me, the Latin word carnarium can mean both “cemetery” and “larder,” which shows that the Romans knew what they were talking about. The function of a churchyard—and the church itself, to some extent—is to digest the dead: There’s no point in pretending otherwise.
After Undine’s shocking outburst of ventriloquism, the ceremony itself went relatively well. Feely, although it pains me to say so, was radiant in the wedding dress that had belonged to our mother, Harriet. Radiant or not, it gave me the shivers.
When all of the proper words had been spoken, rings and vows exchanged, and the register duly signed, the vicar, Denwyn Richardson, held up a hand signaling us to remain in our seats.
“Before walking down the aisle and departing upon their newly married life, Mr. and Mrs. Schrantz,” he said, “have prepared a personal thanks—a little gift—to each and every one of you, who have come from near and far to share their happy day.”
It took a moment for me to realize that “Mr. and Mrs. Schrantz” meant Dieter and Feely, who were already moving toward the grand piano which had been carted from Buckshaw to the church in the early hours of the morning.
Feely, flushing furiously in her billowing white wedding dress and veil, fiddled annoyingly, as she usually does, with the height of the piano stool, twisting it this way and that in a series of ever-diminishing adjustments until it met the stringent requirements of her fastidious backside. Then she sat down and lifted the lid.
There was a long, expectant silence and then, at last, her hands fell upon the keys and she began to play.
A series of descending chords, following one upon another, joined in a melody of childlike simplicity.
Dieter stood stiffly at the foot of the piano which, to my way of thinking, looked in the shafts of light from the stained-glass windows uncommonly like a polished black coffin. He shoved a hand in the front of his morning coat, and began to sing—in German:
“Fremd bin ich eingezogen . . .”
It was “Gute Nacht,” from the song cycle Winterreise. I recognized the song at once as one of Franz Schubert’s lieder, those songs of love and longing so popular in the last century, yet still so beloved by The Third Programme, on the BBC wireless Home Service.
“I came among you as a stranger,” the song began, and went on to tell the sad tale of a lovestruck young man, standing in the snowy darkness at his lover’s gate. He dares not disturb her dreams, but instead, writes on her gate the words “Good night,” so that when she awakes, she will know he was thinking of her.
Even though Daffy had explained the whole thing to me in great detail, I didn’t then—and still don’t—understand how it is that love feeds so voraciously on sadness.
Come to think of it, Dieter had come among us as a stranger—a prisoner of war, in fact—but had long since been welcomed with open arms. He was now as much a part of Bishop’s Lacey as the tower of St. Tancred’s. Had he chosen to sing this particular song at his wedding as a way of expressing the fate he had so narrowly escaped?
The sound of Dieter’s voice made my hair stand on end. His rich baritone filled the church with a warmth that made you turn and smile at your closest fellow man: in my case, Cynthia Richardson, the vicar’s wife, who wiped away wet tears from each eye. Cynthia, too, and her husband, in the tragic loss of their first and only child, had known grief of that same intensity of which Dieter was singing.
I caught Cynthia’s eye and gave her a wink. She returned a sad, wry, silly smile.
Schubert’s melody line was rising like a staircase to heaven. In spite of its melancholy words, the music was that of hope, ever and ever higher, ever and ever more haunting.
It was, I realized with a gasp, the story of my life to date, and I was suddenly finding it difficult to breathe.
Great music has much the same effect upon humans as cyanide, I managed to think: It paralyzes the respiratory system.
Get a grip on yourself, Flavia, I thought.
I had heard stories of people flying to pieces at weddings but had never imagined it could happen to me.
Was it the sudden realization that after today Feely would be gone forever from Buckshaw? It seemed unthinkable.
The two of us had waged war upon each other since the day she had first overturned my pram. What would I do without her?
I twisted round in the pew and glanced back at Dogger, who had chosen to sit with Mrs. Mullet and her husband, Alf (he in a new suit with a chest full of medals), at the back of the church.
We had tried to insist upon them sitting with the family—which consisted today of just Daffy, myself, and, unfortunately, Undine.
But Dogger had demurred.
“I shouldn’t feel comfortable, Miss Flavia,” he said. When he saw my disappointment, he had added, “One must be free to be oneself at weddings, despite the fal-lal and flapdoodle.”
I knew that he was right.
All too soon Dieter’s song came to its inevitable end. It was greeted with an explosion of applause from nearly everybody, an ear-splitting two-fingered whistle from Carl Pendracka, and an inexplicable wail—that of a wolf howling at the moon—from Undine.
I was about to pinch her when she bared her sharp little fangs at me in a werewolf grin, and I let my hand fall to my side.
“Gute nacht,” she whispered in a rasping, guttural voice that could be heard as far away as the font.
Someone giggled, but it wasn’t me.
Feely closed the piano lid, screwed down the seat of the stool, strode back to the top of the aisle, and reassumed the role of a blushing bride.
Transformations, I thought, are everywhere. We are all of us in the process of becoming someone—or something—else. If only we knew it, there are probably people all around us who are in the process of becoming dead.
Later, I wished I hadn’t thought that.
After Feely finished fussing with her dress almost as much as if it were a piano stool, she was ready to begin her walk down the aisle.
As Maximilian Brock, drafted in for the occasion, unleashed the full power of the organ upon us—something from Wagner, I think—Feely seized Dieter’s arm and began her stroll to the door, taking her own good time about it. I could see that she was having her day and was going to make the most of it.
Feely had first asked Daffy and me to be her bridesmaids, but we had both declined: Daffy because she believed bridesmaids at a wedding to be superstitious hokum (“Originally meant to scare away spooks,” she insisted) and I because I wasn’t going to climb into ballet tights just to pander to a sister’s whim.
“What a relief!” Feely had told us. “I didn’t want either of you anyway. I asked only out of courtesy. Actually, I’ve promised Sheila and Flossie Foster since we were toddlers, and I couldn’t possibly back out now—not that I’d want to, anyway.”
And that was that. I have to admit that the Foster sisters lent glamour to the occasion. Having put away their chewing gum and tennis rackets for a few hours, they were radiant in autumn-colored faille frocks with Elizabethan collars, sweetheart necklines, and full skirts.
And I might as well mention that, in order not to be outdone, they both also wore tiaras, with Juliet caps embroidered with pearls and silver beads.
Not that I care a rat’s rompers what they draped themselves with, but I’m always trying to sharpen my already formidable powers of observation.
I, having fallen in behind, was able to follow the procession closely down the aisle to the porch, where the Misses Puddock, Lavinia and Aurelia, perched on matching shooting sticks, had already staked out their vantage point.
Cameras large and small flashed and clicked as the happy couple paused in the porch and smiled out upon the assembled villagers, some of whom, although not present in the church for the ceremony, had gathered in the churchyard to cheer and tug their forelocks in respect, and as a way of getting an hour or so off work with hopes of a free drink or two.
When the wedding was being planned, the Misses Puddock had tried to horn in, as they always did, by offering to perform one of their dreary musical offerings free of charge.
“Oh no,” Feely had told them. “You must be at the door to catch my bouquet.”
Now, with a modest, maidenly backhand, Feely tossed her bouquet into the air. For a girl who could bowl a cricket ball with the best of them when she felt like it, it seemed a frail and puny effort.
Although Miss Lavinia and Miss Aurelia were both in their seventies, and well past the age when most females traipse to the altar, hope still burned eternal, apparently, in their respective withered breasts. These two ancient sisters shot off their respective shooting sticks like ancient skyrockets, and fell upon the flowers as hounds upon the fox, clawing and hissing at each other as if it were a catfight rather than a celebration of Holy Matrimony. Blows and several shocking words were exchanged. It was not a pleasant spectacle.
The real horror, however, was not to come until the reception.
Excerpted from "The Golden Tresses of the Dead"
Copyright © 2019 Alan Bradley.
Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.