Friday, December 10, 2010

Bookworm Present Proposition - Alan Bradley's The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley
Published by: Delacorte
Publication Date: March 9th, 2010
Format: Hardcover, 384 Pages
Recommended for: Anglophiles, Mystery Mavens, Card Carrying Members of the Agatha Christie Fan Club, Those Particular Fans of Post War England, Fans of Precocious Heroines
Rating: ★★★★ 1/2★
To Buy

"Sanctified cyanide
Super-quick arsenic
Into the Soup.
Put out the mourning lamps
Call for coffin clamps
Teach them to trifle with
Flavia de Luce!"

A mile from Buckshaw in the graveyard of Saint Tancred's, Flavia stumbles on a crying woman. Bent over a grave and weeping prodigiously. She turns out to be the beaten and bruised assistant to the famous puppeteer, Rupert Porson, who's show The Magic Kingdom, with Snoddy the Squirrel, is a huge hit for the BBC, not that Flavia would know, her father trusting televisions less then telephones. Their travelling show has hit a hitch. Their van has broken down and they have no money to repair it. The Vicar, Canon Richardson, being a huge fan of the show, suggests that they put on a performance for the parish in exchange for the ticket sales fixing their vehicle. An agreement reached, the details are ironed out, two shows on Saturday of Jack and the Beanstalk. Flavia, in more an inquisitive nature then out of kindness, agrees to help. She gets all the inside scoop on this strange puppeteer, who suffered Polio in his youth and is now a twisted man, outside and in, and avoids all the negatives of home life, mainly Feely and Daphne. Things seem to be going well, the show gets set up, and it is a little magical world where Flavia imagines sitting in Jack's mullioned windowed cottage brewing poisons... but then Flavia gets home and her Aunt Felicity is arriving the next day. So now committed to be in two places at once, Flavia does the next logical thing... gets up at dawn to help the puppeteers so as she can then meet her Aunt's train at the station later in the day. Flavia helps relocate Rupert and Nialla to Culverhouse Farm, where it will be more seemly for them to pitch their tent at the bottom of Jubilee Field, then amongst the dead at Saint Tancred's. But Culverhouse Farm holds misery and darkness. The owner's son Robin died tragically five years earlier, being hanged in Gibbet Wood, where the weird Mad Meg wanders. The fields are tended by a German POW obsessed with the Brontes and a Land Girl obsessed with him. But amongst the other eccentrics of the village, they hardly stand out.

The day of the performance shins bright and Flavia, astride trusty Gladys, whizzes to the Parish Hall. Rupert shows her a little of the magic behind the scenes with Jack and the Giant he will kill. But nothing prepares Flavia for how magical the show really is. She, and the whole audience are transported by Rupert and his puppets... one of which bares a striking resemblance to the dead Robin.... That night Flavia can't wait to see the show again. This time with her entire family in tow, put the show starts off differently. Instead of Rupert's fantastical Mozart introduction, the two old spinster's of the village who run the tea rooms, do their obligatory musical revue and then Jack and the Beanstalk commences. But just as Jack is to slew the Giant, a very dead Rupert Porson falls to the stage. With the whole village as witnesses, they are held and questioned for hours. At the end, it's no doubt that it's murder. But be sure Flavia is convinced of the police's inability to solve this case without her, and she might just be right.

Flavia is back and even more wonderful then in her first installment, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. She still is up to chemical machinations... but it's her ability to unsettle people and ask the questions that need asking and being silent when you need to be silent, that makes her the best detective Bishop's Lacey has ever seen, sorry Inspector Hewitt, you are going to have to step up your game. More fast paced, the pages just flew under my hungry eyes, I just could not put this book down. From Flavia's newest revenge on her sisters, to the Bronte loving Dieter... this book just sprang to life off the pages and made me a participant of the goings on at Bishop's Lacey. But aside from all the layers of intrigue and subplots and mysteries, it was the puppeteer who kept this book strung together.

While most people of my generation think of the Muppets when they think of puppets, the British have a much more storied tradition of puppetry. I'm mainly talking about Punch and Judy, that terrifying duo that embraces violence and hatred for laughs. Until now, I didn't think that anything would capture the malevolence of them like the "Destroying Angel" episode of Midsomer Murders, but I was wrong. Alan Bradley has succeeded where even, in my mind, Neil Gaiman failed. The thread of those two malevolent puppets that strings it's way through this story is just brilliant. I think it has to be said, that only with the knowledge of writing for television and writing for children could anyone have captured the underlying menace and messy lives of those people involved with British Broadcasting. Haven't you ever thought that the people behind such "innocent" fare, like the writer's of Camberwick Green, had to really be mentally disturbed to write that kind of show? That's why people latched onto that parody Life on Mars did... because it's secretly what we've always believed to be true! Puppetry, whilst funny and light, also has a dark, ominous, evil side that ties into the Punch and Judy zeitgeist, that Alan Bradley has tapped into here.

If there's one wish for this book, it was that the ending was a little more... messy. It seemed to tie up a little too neatly. Things might not be as dark and foreboding as they look, and I kind of wanted them dark and foreboding. I am happy that Flavia did not get held hostage again, totally avoiding the cliche of damsel in distress, that brought the previous book down a star... but still, not quite perfect yet. I might have been willing to oversea the faults if Dieter had come in again at the end. You know... I think I might have fallen a little for that POW with the Bronte complex... I don't think I've even met a more fascinating man. Why does he have to be fictional?


You always find the most interesting books to read. This plot seems a little convoluted but perhaps not when reading it? I will be on the look out for this title.

I need to pick this one up. I kinda can't believe I've put it off this long, as much as I liked tSatBofP

Sari, convoluted, no, twists and turns, yes! A must for a mystery. And Misty, you MUST pick it up, I liked the first, and just loved this one!

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