Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag

Only the other day, a brightly coloured package arrived at Miss Lemon's door. Imagine her delight when after untying the ribbon she discovered a book bedecked in a shade Miss Lemon could only describe as eponymous. It was the latest in the Flavia de Luce series:  A Red Herring Without Mustard.

The package reminded Miss Lemon that there was another book by Alan Bradley with a similarly eccentric title that sat among her prodigious bookshelves, patiently awaiting her attention.

Dismayed at having neglected the followup to such a delightful debut as The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Miss Lemon set to The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag with alacrity.

She wasn't disappointed. After making a brief adjustment to her suspension of disbelief to the incredible precociousness and cultural wisdom of the novel's eleven-year-old detective, Flavia de Luce, she found many of the same narrative pleasures and surprises as she found in Mr. Bradley's first novel. Only this time it is July, not June, and the murder victim is a puppeteer rather than a philatelist.

Once again, Flavia attempts to poison her older sister, Feely. Once again, she carries out harrowing experiments in her laboratory to find out things that perhaps she'd be better off not knowing. Once again, she cloaks her tale in a colourful cape of amusing metaphors and wry philosophical observations. 

In short, this is a novel not to be missed. And as it refers to several of the events in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, it may be prudent to read it before cracking A Red Herring Without Mustard.

Now if you're wondering (and who isn't?) where Mr. Bradley comes up with these madcap titles, he is gentleman enough to tell you, just after the flyleaf:
Sir Walter Raleigh to His Son
Three things there be that prosper up apace, 
   And flourish while they grow asunder far;
But on a day, they meet all in a place,
   And when they meet, they one another mar.

And they be these; the Wood, the Weed, the Wag:
   The Wood is that that makes the gallows tree;
The Weed is that that strings the hangman's bag;
    The Wag, my pretty knave, betokens thee.

Now mark, dear boy -- while these assemble not,
   Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wild;
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot,
   It frets the halter, and it chokes the child. 

Indeed, my dear readers, mark this well. For in it, you'll find many a clue; perhaps even before Flavia de Luce does.