Monday, July 12, 2010

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

I am reading a lot of books at once and also trying to get more active and do things with my kids this summer, so I'm not finishing books as quickly as usual. Sometimes the way to fix that is to read some easy books, so I've been reading the second Flavia de Luce mystery, sent to me a while back by Corey at Shelf Monkey. This one is entitled The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag. I find Alan Bradley's titles unmemorable, and I think he's going to have a hard time sustaining my interest in his plucky little heroine as her adventures continue--since part of my delight in her character is my surprise at what she turns out to be capable of--but I enjoyed this second one almost as much as the first, largely due to the unexpected cleverness of the way Bradley has Flavia use chemistry and other kinds of (to me at least) esoteric knowledge.

I didn't know who "Mother Shipton" was, for instance--a character who evidently inspired at least the costume of Mother Goose: "she was some old crone who was supposed to have lived in the sixteenth century and seen into the future, predicting, among other things, the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, aeroplanes, battleships, and that the world would come to an end in 1881." I like the way it makes me think about people who believe that the end of the world will come in 2012 and how Flavia dismisses the story as "a load of old tosh."

I love the way the book is framed by Flavia's chemical maneuverings with a box of chocolates that she has intercepted before they can be delivered to one of her older sisters and then has to intercept again before they can be served to a room full of family and friends.

The simplicity of some of the clues in this mystery are obscured by Flavia's 11-year-old philosophizing, which is less charming than her ferocity and chemical prowess:
"Seen from the air, the male mind must look rather like the canals of Europe, with ideas being towed along well-worn towpaths by heavy-footed dray horses. There is never any doubt that they will, despite wind and weather, reach their destinations by following a simple series of connected lines.
But the female mind, even in my limited experience, seems more of a vast and teeming swamp, but a swamp that knows in an instant whenever a stranger--even miles away--has so much as dipped a single toe into her waters."

One of the comforting things about reading a mystery set in a simpler time, like this one, is the attitude toward the death of a child. At the conclusion of a 45-minute inquest into the death of a 5-year-old boy with the verdict of "Death by Misadventure," the coroner "expressed his sympathy to the bereaved parents" and Flavia concludes that the article about his death is short because "the village wanted to spare Robin's parents the grief of seeing the horrid details in print." This seems so much more humane than the articles I read today, in which a stunned parent who has, for example, forgotten a toddler in a car on a hot day, is formally prosecuted for the "crime," on top of the already overwhelming guilt and lifelong grief. In Flavia's world, everyone knows everyone else, and so suffering, while occasionally deliberately inflicted, is never disregarded.

I also find that, as a parent who is trying to spend some time with the kids in the summer, it's good for me to read the occasional book written from an immature point of view, because I remember a bit of what it was like when I didn't already know everything but thought I did!


FreshHell said...

I'll have to find these. Sounds like something I'd like.

Care said...

So now, do you know everything and realize it, too? :)
What strikes me abt the Bradley series is the vivid colors of the covers. The long titles not so much.
How was the chess tourney?

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, they're often described as "cosy mysteries"--you could probably polish one off in an evening or two, depending on how often you're interrupted!

Care, yeah, I was trying to sound like a know-it-all! The chess tournament was a learning experience. Walker entered in the highest (open) category and did extremely well to draw one and win one out of five games. And it wasn't as bad a waiting experience for me as usual--the hotel had its pool in the atrium, so there were skylights and plants, and it wasn't too chilly in there.

Jenny said...

I agree with you that the titles aren't memorable. I'm not at all opposed to long titles (I like them actually), but if they're going to be long, they should be long for a very good reason.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, exactly. Also I'm a fan of titles that are taken from the actual text, which isn't the case here.

Ana S. said...

I'm going to read both of this and the first this summer. I can see how they'd get samey after a while, but I think I'll enjoy them a lot. And gah, those exploitative articles about toddlers forgotten in cars always make me feel SO sad. And not in the dramarama way the articles intend.

Amanda said...

I'm going to be reading both this and the first book during the RIP season. I started the first one a few months ago but the atmosphere seemed so fall-perfect that I decided to wait.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, those articles make me feel sad for the parents, who I imagine as so overstretched (as I was in those days) that they're practically sleepwalking through their days.

Amanda, "the RIP season" is a very amusing phrase. Now that Halloween is in stores from labor day until All Saint's Day, it seems appropriate.