Alan Bradley

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

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As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust Summary

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As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is a 2015 mystery novel for young adults by Alan Bradley. Set in post-World War II Canada, it concerns Flavia de Luce, a twelve-year-old girl who independently investigates crimes. The youngest daughter of the de Luce family, Flavia lives with her father and two older sisters in an old, nearly derelict house in the country. Having lost their mother at a young age under mysterious circumstances, the girls and their father still feel the loss and have difficulty communicating with each other. The novel is the sixth book in a larger bildungsroman series in which Flavia comes of age through learning to cope with her past and developing her ambitions to solve crimes and make the world a better place.

The novel largely deals with Flavia’s mother, who went missing early in Flavia’s childhood. Set in Canada instead of her homeland Britain, Flavia, a year older than in the previous novel, has been sent to an all-girls’ academy, Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto. The Academy’s board sends its chairman, Ryerson Rainsmith, and his wife, Dorsey, to escort Flavia from her former home to the academy. Flavia, instantly annoyed by them, is anxious to regain her independence at the school. Dorsey is extremely demanding and controlling of her husband, who is somewhat spineless and deferential.

The ship sails across the Atlantic to Toronto, reaching Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy. At this institution, her mother’s former school, she is supposed to continue her formal studies and learn some of the ancient arts her mother learned. In addition, she learns that she has been named a member of a prestigious secret society called the Nide. The first night, after enrolling and getting settled in her dormitory, a burnt corpse falls down her chimney and into her bedroom. Wrapped in a Union Jack flag, it seems to have been lodged in the chimney for ages. Flavia investigates the event, finding that several girls have disappeared from the school without explanation. Rumors abound of the boarding school being haunted, but Flavia reckons that perfectly explainable, human forces are at work.

Investigating further, Flavia finds that three students have gone missing during the school’s recent history. Meanwhile, the student body begins to murmur about what might have befallen their missing peers, though no one raises the question to an adult. In her new environment, Flavia doesn’t know who and who not to trust, navigating the complex social scene while trying to uncover the facts. She also has no idea who else, if anyone, belongs to the Nide. Further complicating her life, she becomes wary of their headmistress, Miss Fawlthorne, a domineering woman who requires strict order and views Flavia’s prying as disruptive to the school environment. Miss Fawlthorne has instituted a rule mandating that students do not ask questions about each other or anyone’s personal lives.

Flavia circumvents the boarding school’s restrictions on speech and disclosure by frequently pretending to be too sick to attend class, filling the time, instead, by interviewing figures who work and are enrolled at the school. As she feels she is getting closer to finding the motive and culprit behind the possible murders of the three girls, she also starts to wonder why her father was so insistent on her attending the school.

Ultimately, Flavia’s search never bears the fruit she wants. However, she does learn that her time at the school under the direction of Miss Fawlthorne had been meticulously planned out so that Flavia would gain exposure to training as a member of the Nide. The cases of the missing students are never solved, implying that the Nide has darker secrets that are supposed to be sealed off from new initiates. At the end of the novel, the headmistress throws Flavia out of Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy. It is implied that the rationale is that Flavia has found out too much about the school’s criminal past. Flavia thus transcends the bureaucratic spy institution that wants her to integrate into it, instinctively sleuthing and calling out its flaws. At the novel’s end, she remains a lone wolf protagonist, who always departs from the accepted norm, transgressing rules, even at a high risk, to find the truth.