I have never considered myself much of a mystery fan. Growing up, I watched my middle sister Virginia devour volumes of Nancy Drew and Ian Fleming’s entire oeuvre of James Bond adventures. I preferred disaster tomes like Walter Lords’ A Night to Remember about the Titanic, and I was smitten with a history of the circus that listed all the oddities P.T. Barnum brought to the spotlight — Jenny Lind, Tom Thumb and Eng and Chang the conjoined brothers. I was the lone teen reader among my peers of Nicholas and Alexandra and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. No wonder I didn’t date.
As an adult I didn’t catch the spark for the ‘who-done-its’ that perpetually eat up prime real estate on best-seller fiction lists. But Alan Bradley has changed that with his terrific Flavia de Luce Mystery series. If there is a softer side to murder, this is it. And it’s a lot of fun for the reader.
In 2009 he introduced Miss de Luce, an 11-year-old girl sleuth who draws trouble to her like metal filings to a magnet. She is the gas for the engine in his charming series that began with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and continues in The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag.
To imagine Flavia — a precocious, autodidactic chemist as well as a mini Miss Marple — picture a girl as infectious as Pollyanna sandwiched with Wednesday Addams’ sense of sinister playfulness. Isolated in the English countryside, Flavia waits for trouble and if none happens, she is good on the assist. Who else but Flavia would inject chocolates meant for her eldest sister with a wicked potion, then rewrap the box?
Flavia is the youngest of three girls. Along with sisters Ophelia and Daphne they live at Buckshaw, the rambling family estate of their late mother, Harriett, who died in a mountaineering accident when Flavia was one. Their father, Havilland, a retired colonel and doleful widower, does his best to keep order but is not successful with his rambunctious youngest daughter.
Mr. Bradley’s writing is highly descriptive and colorful. The family’s cook, Mrs. Mullet, who is sorely in need of a basic kitchen primer, conjures up many unappetizing offerings that are so awful they get nicknamed by the girls. ‘The Wiffler,’ described as a ‘clotted green jelly in sausage casings, topped with double Devon cream, and garnished with springs of mint and other assorted garden refuse,’ stands alone in encapsulating English makeshift cooking post World War II, and the author’s vast imagination.
In Hangman’s Bag, Flavia has set out on her trusty bicycle, Gladys, for the church graveyard in Bishop’s Lacey, the town center. Ever the dramatic person, she imagines her death and funeral, down to the dirge, when she is interrupted by the sounds of a nearby grief-stricken woman, Nialla, who, it turns out, is the assistant to Rupert Porson, a famed puppeteer from London and a BBC television star.
Flavia befriends Nialla and quickly inserts herself into the traveling puppet show’s ad hoc performance agenda, as they are marooned in Bishop’s Lacey courtesy of their sputtering van. She wonders what an esteemed puppet troupe would be doing so far from London in her rural neck of the woods, and she cannot help but poke her nose into the possible romantic affairs of Nialla and Rupert, event though they do not strike her as a match made in heaven. If you were an amateur chemist what would you do in this situation? Gather samples! Slyly, Flavia collects these — on a handkerchief from Nialla and from a stubbed-out cigarette of Rupert’s — and back in her lab assesses a few things about the pair: Nialla is pregnant and Rupert is smoking weed. Most intriguing to Flavia, and to the reader.
Mr. Bradley gives a terrific description of the puppet show performances, which start with a Mozart marionette that plays a crocodile-like, finger-snapping harpsichord and of the main event a production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Curiously, ‘Jack’ looks eerily familiar to a young boy from the village who hanged himself years earlier. During the evening show Rupert is fatally electrocuted by the flotsam of wires on stage and Flavia senses immediately that this is no accident. Why would a stranger, new to Bishop’s Lacey but now deceased, have carved a puppet with an uncanny resemblance to a dead boy? This is a crime Flavia decides she can solve, far ahead of the procedurally challenged constable.
If there is any part of this highly readable series that causes pause, it’s getting over your disbelief that Flavia could be such an apt chemist. In an abandoned wing at Buckshaw there is an old chemistry lab that once belonged to an uncle, Tarquin de Luce. Here, Flavia goes about her experiments in privacy. She is to Bunsen burners and tinctures what Emeril is to pans: boom! You wonder why her family isn’t able to track her science mayhem more closely. But, Mr. Bradley is very good at getting you to dismiss such thoughts because of the story’s humor and pacing. To overly question would be to miss the fun in this novel and anyway, it really is a big, big house. Beside, who wants to be a killjoy?
Hangman’s Bag is a glorious mischief and Flavia an embracing delight. There isn’t a reason on earth why you should not tote this to the beach or the pool this Memorial Weekend. Or maybe just get on your bike and find a nice field where you can lay down your blanket and read.
P.E. Logan is communications professional and a writer in New York. She has worked at various adult trade publishing houses including Random House, Putnam, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster for almost three decades. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and other periodicals.