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A finger in a wedding cake is only the beginning in this deliciously shocking mystery featuring Flavia de Luce, “the world’s greatest adolescent British chemist/busybody/sleuth” (The Seattle Times).
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.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Golden Tresses of the Dead
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.
Alan Bradley is the New York Times bestselling author of many short stories, children’s stories, newspaper columns, and the memoir The Shoebox Bible. His first Flavia de Luce novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, received the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award, the Dilys Winn Award, the Arthur Ellis Award, the Agatha Award, the Macavity Award, and the Barry Award, and was nominated for the Anthony Award. His other Flavia de Luce novels are The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, A Red Herring Without Mustard, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Speaking from Among the Bones, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, and Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, as well as the ebook short story “The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse.”