Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

Although there was a sliver of gold in the eastern sky, the sun was not yet up as I barrelled along the road to Bishop's Lacey. Gladys's tyres were humming that busy, waspish sound they make when she's especially contented. 
Low fog floated in the fields on either side of the ditches, and I pretended that I was the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw flying to Heathcliff (except for the bicycle) across the Yorkshire moors. Now and then, a skeletal hand would reach out of the bramble hedges to snatch at my red woollen sweater, but Gladys and I were too fast for them.
In The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, the second Flavia de Luce mystery, Alan Bradley has come up with another book that I desperately didn't want to finish - young Flavia is so refreshingly acerbic about everyone around her, yet at the same time beset with private fears. Was she, as her sisters claim, responsible for her mother's death? She's had to develop a tough exterior to protect her against such accusations, and some readers have complained that the apparent malice between the sisters is unconvincing or unpleasant, but Flavia comes from a more buttoned-up era when it was quite usual for all sorts of resentments to fester beneath the surface (actually, a good deal of festering still goes on, viz. any agony aunt's advice about the dangers of family get-togethers like Christmas, but these days we are encouraged to express our feelings more openly, which may or may not be a good thing). Domestic tensions aren't helped by a father who is largely disengaged, a family retainer with a tenuous hold on mental health and a Wodehousian aunt. Add a rather nasty suspicious death, a policeman who's keen to discourage amateur interference and some dodgy substances, and you have a recipe for a classic crime story.

The precocious Flavia's voice carries the action deliciously - Bradley so evidently adores his young heroine, and his writing resonates with the atmosphere of a bygone England. I suspect Bradley might have spent the odd happy hour, himself, absorbing the acid delights of Nancy Mitford, because I detect in Flavia and her sisters a blood-tie with the young Radletts, while their ex-army Father is clearly an admirer of Lord Alconleigh. Inspector Hewitt, on the other hand, might have emerged from the pages of Georgette Heyer or Marjory Allingham, and is a worthy adversary for Flavia - he'd be an evener worthier ally, if only he could see it, because he infuriates Flavia by thwarting her attempts to help, thereby forcing her to embark on her own investigations, which she pursues with dogged determination and considerable deviousness. She is pure joy.

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