Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Double fun: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, by Alan Bradley
Set in the English countryside near the village of Bishop's Lacey in 1950, eleven year old Flavia lives with two older sisters and her father, the family factotum Dogger and the part-time housekeeper and cook Mrs. Mullet at a decaying manor home called Buckshaw. Flavia's dad passes most of his time alone, collecting stamps and listening to music. Ophelia, the eldest sister, prides herself on her appearance, and then there's Daphne, who always has her nose stuck in a book. Flavia's mother died during a mountain-climbing trip in Tibet when Flavia was still very small, but her dad manages to hold the family together even though money is tight and the home needs major repairs. As the story opens, Mrs. Mullet discovers a dead bird with an antique stamp through its beak, and shortly thereafter, Flavia discovers a dying man in the garden. After all is said and done, Mr. deLuce is arrested, and Flavia's detective career begins in order to clear him.
What makes this story work is both the character of Flavia and the author's writing. It's often hard to remember sometimes that Flavia is only eleven, and the word precocious hardly begins to describe her. Because she's 11, people tend not to pay attention to her, and she's the most scheming little thing you can imagine. Her mind never stops working, she is as relentless as a pit bull when she's on to something, and she's brilliant -- she's a master of chemistry at her tender young age, and she sees all facets of the world around her in ways adults cannot. She has this wonderful gift of being able to make pretty much anyone tell her anything. At the same time, you get little glimpses into Flavia the little girl, such as when her sisters tease her, or when she thinks about her mother. As far as the author's writing, even though his main character is this precocious 11-year old girl, he still hangs on to the realities of post-war England. Dogger, for example, suffers what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder, after suffering through the atrocities of a POW camp. The family home, Buckshaw, once a beautiful and elegant manor, has seen better days. Bradley's characterizations are excellent, each person with his or her own voice and clearly-defined place in this story. And, most importantly, this story does not devolve into the realm of "cutesy" or sickeningly sweet at all. It's fun and yet at the same time, it's intelligent.
As far as the mystery goes, the whodunit is a bit transparent, but you really won't care because this book is so well written. You end up being engrossed in the world of Bishop's Lacey and in the deLuce family, and especially in Flavia, so while the core murder mystery is good, there's so much more going on that takes you over as a reader. I can highly recommend this book to anyone -- definitely one of my favorites for this reading year.
First, my thanks to the Amazon Vine Review program for both offering and sending me this book.
Second in the series featuring young Flavia de Luce, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag has our young heroine embroiled in yet another sticky situation or two, trying to uncover the identity of a murderer who dared do the deed in the middle of a performance of Jack the Beanstalk at the village church. As it just so happens, Flavia and her family, including Aunt Felicity (a new arrival to this series) are in the audience watching as the death occurs. Flavia knows right away that the death wasn't natural, as does the family gardener and general man-about-the-house Dogger, and she sets about finding the killer. But that's not all that Flavia knows, and as she uses her observations to help guide her, other mysteries, long kept hidden in the little village of Bishop's Lacey, begin to be revealed, perhaps not to some people's liking.
Once again Alan Bradley has done a fantastic job relating the story of Flavia deLuce, that child genius who was first introduced in his first novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Bradley has not let up on his excellent writing, indeed, in this novel, the characters all become more real, more fleshed out, and he adds some new and quirky characters into the village of Bishop's Lacey. The mystery element of this novel is much stronger and runs deeper than in the first novel, and the reader finds himself or herself this time with several suspects from which to choose, all with their own private motives for murder. But once again, the strength isn't so much in the mystery, but rather in the other elements of the novel. For example, there's the struggle of Haviland deLuce (Flavia's father) to keep the family home, Buckshaw. There's also the introduction of a new character, Dieter, a former German POW working on a farm in the countryside, and how he came to be shot down over England during the war. Then there's Flavia's deep-seated needed to find out more about her mother, dead since she was a very small child. And Bradley hits on the exploitation of things that maybe should have been a bit more private by television producers for Auntie, the inside name for the BBC.
Let me just say that many people complained about the lack of a true mystery plotline in the first novel of the series, or thought that the whole mystery thing was flat. Balderdash. If you can just sit back and relax, and read around the mystery and think about what you're reading, you'll discover that there is more to these books than some precocious child playing Holmes here. Bradley's captured a slice of time past and he does it well and most intelligently. I can very highly recommend this novel, and now I'm just sad that I have to wait a year or so for the next one.