The Grave's a Fine and Private Place is the ninth book in Alan Bradley's popular mystery series featuring Flavia de Luce, a twelve-year-old chemistry genius, in the rural England of the 1950s. Flavia frequently uses her knowledge of poisons to solve crimes. After their father's death, Flavia and her two obnoxious older sisters, Feely (Ophelia) and Daffy (Daphne), go on a boating trip with Dogger, the family's faithful servant. Dogger has been traumatized by his experiences in a World War II prisoner of war camp, and experiences flashbacks. He and Flavia have always been close and, in a way, he has been a better father to Flavia than her own father, who was always emotionally distant.
When Flavia, her sisters, and Dogger arrive at a village, Flavia finds a dead body, wearing a theatrical costume, in the river. The dead man turns out to be Orlando, a promising young actor and the son of the village's vicar, who has been hanged for murder after three of his female parishioners died from drinking poisoned communion wine. The local policeman, the ambitious Constable Otter, wants to treat Orlando's death as an accidental drowning, but Flavia, after conducting experiments on materials she found with Orlando's body, knows he was murdered. But who had a reason to murder him? Everyone in the village seems to have liked Orlando. A poem by the innkeeper's wife hints at secrets, possibly a forbidden love affair. But how was Orlando involved? Flavia investigates, with the help of Dogger and Hob Nightingale, the undertaker's son. She discovers that several of the villagers might have had a motive to kill Orlando, and that his father, the vicar, might have been innocent of the murders for which he was executed.
Flavia is a delightful character, brilliant but vulnerable at the same time. She has matured throughout the series, and it is probably best to begin with the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The Grave's a Fine and Private Place certainly stands on its own, and is very enjoyable by itself, but for the character development it is better to read the whole series from the beginning. It is not just Flavia's character that has developed since the first book. Her sisters have mellowed, and treat Flavia better than they did earlier in the series. Daffy even helps her with the clues in the poem, since she loves to read poetry, and that is not Flavia's strength. Most of all, though, it is Dogger's character who is more fully developed in this book than ever before. We learn about his life before World War II, and meet a woman from his past. His investigative abilities, and even his knowledge of chemistry, are almost as strong as Flavia's. Dogger comes into his own in this book, and it appears we will see much more of him in future volumes, as he and Flavia become partners in detection. I highly recommend the whole series.
The Grave's a Fine and Private Place can be borrowed from the Browsing Collection in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.