Wednesday, April 14, 2010

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

I didn't think twice about buying this book, even though the reviews on the back cover were all for the author's first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Why? First, Sweetness was an amazing book. I devoured it. I loved it. I recommended it to everyone I know, and received enthusiastic praise for my book-recommending skills from all who read it. I was waiting eagerly for the next book in the series.

Also, all the reviews I saw on a certain large bookselling website were raves.

Have you ever read a book review and wondered, "Is that person talking about the same book I read?"

Have you ever read dozens of book reviews and wondered that?

The heroine of both books is Flavia De Luce, a quirky, intelligent, and lively eleven-year-old girl who lives with her quirky family in an English estate and solves local mysteries. The first book reminded me of Agatha Christie, with suspects everywhere and a plot that twists and turns until the end. But there's one important difference: Narrated from the point of view of a child obsessed with chemistry and annoyed by the foibles of the adults around her (not to mention the silly older sisters that torment her), the first book had an unmatchable depth and charm.

I wish I could say this review has a surprise ending to amuse and delight you, but regrettably, I think you see where this is going.

The general outline of the story is, a puppeteer and his girlfriend turn up in 1950s Bishop's Lacey, where their car has broken down, and immediately encounter Flavia de Luce. Although the puppeteer is famous and appears on the BBC, he's also broke, so the couple end up camping in the village, and then agree to put on a puppet show in the local church. During the course of the show, the puppeteer is electrocuted, at which point Flavia sets out to solve the crime, which seems to be related to another crime that took place several years earlier.

Hangman starts off re-introducing the characters and setting ... and meanders along in this vein for ooooh approximately thirteen chapters, when much to my relief, the murder finally takes place. In the course of those 152 pages (not that I was counting), little clues as to the book's possible direction are thrown in, but the lack of action made them more frustrating than tantalizing. The background is scenic, to be sure, but there's just too much of it.

Once the story finally got going, I did find myself turning pages, wanting to know how it ended, and it chugged along as a good mystery should. But even as it starts move, there are a lot of oddball details thrown in that were probably put there to illustrate Flavia's intelligent, quirky charm, but come across as forced. When Flavia sees the victim just after the murder, for example, she thinks his eyes would be like the mirror in the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, if she could get a closer look - but they wouldn't for much longer. Okay, great, I get the reference, having sat through a semester of Flemish art in college, but since it doesn't add anything to the story and we've already sat through 152 pages of character development, why is it there except to make the book seem ... you know ... intellectual-like?

The improbable plot points don't help the matter. At one point, the action stops completely for a lengthy flashback by a German prisoner of war on how he was captured: a story that involves him, as a luftwaffe pilot, using his plane to drop a wreath on the Bronte's English home after a bombing raid, such was his love of English literature. Charming and eccentric? Maybe. But when he is captured by one of the villagers and then "coincidentally" ends up sent to live with that same villager upon his release, well, at a certain point I stop suspending my disbelief.

On the bright side, my inner nitpicker had a field day with the continuity errors, never a good thing in a mystery. Example: Flavia's elaborate chemistry set was left in the house by her late Uncle, Tar deLuce. Which is fine until she mentions the fact that the house actually was inherited by her mother, whose maiden name was presumably not deLuce, so can you please draw me a family tree because I think some of your branches might be twisted (although funny things do happen, even in the best of families). There's also a matter of a plot-crucial bike clip that is picked up by a character called Mad Meg and then lost but when I went back over the timeline in my head, I felt like she'd had the bike clip when it was being used in the murder ... or something. I got confused following it. It seemed to be in many places at once and none of that was properly explained.

Unfortunately, there are lots more odd details that are never explained. The murder that took place several years ago was of a little boy, whose face appears on the puppeteer's puppet. But why? The motivation is never explained. Flavia uses her wits and her chemistry lab to determine that the puppeteer's girlfriend is pregnant, but this plotline's relevance is never explained, and the girlfriend's story line isn't satisfactorily resolved, given the amount of time that is spent on it in the beginning of the book.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was a finely honed novel, adeptly paced, all loose ends neatly tied together in a delightful bow that Martha Stewart would envy. Sadly, The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag feels rushed - like it could be a great book if the author and his editors had simply slowed down and crafted the material more carefully.

I wanted to love this book, and I'm terribly sad that I didn't. The author blurb says Mr. Bradley is working on the third book in the series, and such was the strength of Sweetness that I am still hopeful that he can craft another master work.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, Jess. Not to nitpick your nitpicking -- which is generally spot on -- but they do explain that Harriet and Flavia's father were distantly related. She was the closer of the two to Tar, and the house was hers, which is why the death taxes may take the house (apparently, death was very pricey in 1950s England). I was totally lost with the boy's face on the puppet as well. What was that about? I'm hoping for better things from the third book!


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