Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Weed That Stings The Hangman's Bag

After reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't wait to read Flavia, the remarkable 11 year old sleuth's, second adventure. The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag was a joy to read, much like the first book. It is another utterly beguiling murder mystery, that so elegantly leaves out all the bloodshed and darkness usually found in this genre, and focuses on chemical science, intelligent problem solving, and smart, quick witted thinking. Told with Flavia's sparkling narrative, the story is involved and intricate, filled with wit, gaiety, clever writing, and quirky, diverse characters that are so honest in their personalities, their stories and encounters will surely bring a smile to your face.

We are brought into the story, eavesdropping on Flavia, as she contemplates her own death, and how sorry her family would be if she were no longer alive. When preparing to return to her threadbare ancestral home, Flavia comes across the small time broadcast puppeteer and womanizer, Robert Porson, and his beautiful yet flawed assistant, Nialla, who's van had just broken down. After accepting the assistance of Flavia and the vicar in their hour of need, Porson agrees to put on a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk while waiting for the van to be repaired. But when Porson has an unfortunate rendezvous with electricity, and comes to his sudden death in the middle of his memorable performance, Flavia put's aside her chemistry experiments and schemes of vengeance, and sets out in search of Bishop’s Lacey’s deadliest secrets. Feigning an innocence entirely at odds with her shrewdness about adult doings, Flavia uses her skills in chemistry and questioning to figure out which of the many possible suspects murdered Rupert and why, and soon finds herself "untangling two deaths, separated by time but linked by the unlikeliest of threads".

Bradley deftly evokes the period, bringing irreverent and literate text together with humor and memorable personalities to produce an intelligent and amiable story. Perhaps the book's most appealing trait is its glorious ensemble of 1950 English eccentrics, thrown together in the Christiesque rural haven of Bishop's Lacey. The charismatic traveling puppeteer, the domineering vicar's wife, Flavia's evil, sneering sisters, the aberrant aunt, the disturbed but trusted retainer, the gossiping cook, a sinister bureaucrat from the BBC, and a handsome former German prisoner of war, come together with ever changing dynamics to add dimension to Flavia's perspective and character.

Entering Flavia's luminous and spontaneous world for a second time, was as much a delight for me as was my first encounter with her. Her smart, and often sarcastic remarks, her natural ability to think beyond the defined lines, and her fearless and importunate initiative, kept me thoroughly charmed and enthralled from page to page. 

The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag could be a stand alone book, but I recommend reading it only after you have fully engaged yourself in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. As Bradley intended, reading the books in order will give you a more thorough insight into Flavia's world, and her complex relationships with her antithetical family and the diverse neighborhood residents. 

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