Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag

"I have never much cared for flippant remarks, especially when others make them, and in particular, I don't give a frog's fundament for them when they come from an adult.  It has been my experience that facetiousness in the mouth of someone old enough to know better is often no more than camouflage for something far, far worse."  (17)

Frog's wha'?  Well, technically it means foundation or basis of something (fundamental, right?), but if you look not very hard you can find that it refers to an anatomical foundation.  So to be precise, Our Heroine in Alan Bradley's The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag (2010, this edition Bantam, 2011) is saying, rawther Britishly, that she doesn't give a rat's ass for grown-up double-speak.

That's Flavia de Luce for you:  well-spoken, unfailingly polite, insatiably curious, yet with an underlying wariness born of a lonely existence in a upper-crust British family.  If you read the first installment in this charming series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the opening scene here, wherein Flavia magnificently imagines her death and the ensuing ceremony and grief, will come as no surprise.  It is the bitter yet funny imagining of a precocious child whose closest confident is the groundsman-cum-butler and whose refuge is an antique chemistry lab in an unused wing of the crumbling family manse.  Flave, as she refers to herself at times, roams the countryside and local village on her trusty bicycle steed, Gladys, a constant reminder of her dimly remembered but nonetheless worshipped deceased mother.  An excess of intelligence and fertile imagination mean that she is always wherever interesting things happen, especially if murder or other nefarious activities are involved.

A suspect-in-the-way-that-itinerant-artists-are, yet enormously entertaining travelling puppet show has come to the charming willage of Bishop's Lacey.  It has the requisite suspicious characters - the talented yet deformed maestro who literally pulls the strings, his charming but maybe troubled assistant - and beautifully carved if disturbingly real puppets.  Someone ends up dead, and some locals with troubled pasts might be involved, and it might just be connected to the tragic death of a child some years earlier.  There are some weak red herrings, especially the dashing former German POW and his backstory which seems to take up several pages in the middle of the story and serves no purpose as far as I can tell other than to provide Flavia's sister Ophelia with someone to moon over.

That doesn't really matter, however, as I find that I don't particularly care about who killed whom.  It's the central plot element of course but what I really like about this series is the very Britishness of it all - and the gentle skewering thereof.  We have hopelessly stratified society, from Flavia's fake "prunes-and-prisms" voice that she puts on when necessary (194) to "the Spurlings [one named Bunny, natch] of Nautilus Old Hall, who, as Father once remarked, had gone to the dogs by way of the horses."  (181)  And the redoubtable Aunt Felicity*, down from London for a visit.
  "'London?' Aunt Felicity said.  'London is always the same, all soot and pigeons and Clement Atlee.  Just one damnable deprivation after another.  They ought to have men with nets to capture those children one sees in Kensington and train them to run the power plants at Battersea and Bankside.  With a better class of people at the switches mightn't go off so frequently."  (102)

We also queue, of course, especially to say good morning to the vicar after church on Sunday, as did Dogger and Aunt Felicity, "penned up somewhere in the vestibule, queueing like crewmen on a sunken submarine, waiting for their turn at the escape hatch." (181) And, we have creaky old houses that make one pause and ponder.  "At Buckshaw, time does not pass as it does in other places.  At Buckshaw, time seems to be controlled not by those frantic, scurrying little cogs in the hall clock that spin like hamsters in their shuttered cages, but rather by the solemn great gears that manage to creep through just one complete turn each year."  Here you see Flavia's marvelous imagination, her underlying desperation at her lonely situation, and yet I think also a certain devotion to it.  She is a de Luce, and de Luces live in slow houses like Buckshaw, that is how it is.

Finally we have noble family retainers (Dogger) and blissfully unaware ones like housekeeper-cook Mrs. Mullet.  The de Luces, for all their ancient lineage, have actually fallen on hard times financially - this story in particular includes vague references to some financial disaster that Father may have brought upon the household - so they are limited in the resources they can devote to high living.  Mrs. Mullet will have to do.  And does she ever, as this lengthy excerpt delightfully demonstrates.
  "'The Whiffler,' as we called it, was a dessert of Mrs. Mullet's own devising, which, so far as we could make out, consisted of a sort of clotted green jelly in sausage casings, topped with double Devon cream, and garnished with sprigs of mint and other assorted vegetable refuse.  It sat there, quivering obscenely now and then, like some great beastly garden slug."  (45)

British girls always use the word beastly at some point.

*I was quite pleased to see Aunt Felicity throw Flavia a lifeline in a brief but important conversation about her mother, her inspirations, and her aspirations.  Will she be something of a mentor in future installments?

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