Friday, August 6, 2010

The triumph of Flavia

I could have signed up for the Flavia de Luce fan club after reading her debut mystery: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Flavia is an old-for-her-11-years budding chemist, with a particular fondness for poison. Her two older sisters detest her (Flavia's preferred type of revenge is poison), her ineffectual father is more comfortable with his stamp collection than human interaction, and her closest friend is the family's gardener/handyman, Dogger, who has occasional spells of shell shock. It's 1950 in a small English town called Bishop's Lacey, and in the tradition of the mystery novel there are an extraordinary number of bodies lying about.

After I listened to The Hunchback Assignments last year, I realized that the book's narrator, Jayne Entwhistle, also narrates the Flavia novels. I enjoyed Entwhistle's reading voice and style and resolved to listen to Alan Bradley's next Flavia de Luce mystery: The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag.

Flavia, who gets around town on her trusty bicycle Gladys, meets smarmy children's puppeteer Rupert Porson and his assistant/lover Nialla (pronounced knee-ah) when their van breaks down in Bishop's Lacey. A local farmer -- whose five-year-old son hanged himself (this stretched belief for me) 10 years ago -- offers to help repair the van, and the vicar convinces Porson to put on a puppet show for the children while he waits. In a suitably macabre way, Porson is electrocuted as he performs the finale of "Jack and the Beanstalk" and Flavia is steps ahead of the local coppers in believing it murder rather than tragic accident. She's right, of course.

I like Flavia (who narrates her own adventures) but I've got to say that in listening to her, she grew tiresome. I don't think I can fault the narrator, I'm wondering if it's that Flavia's outsized personality and adventures are so utterly preposterous that hearing them read aloud gives them a sense of reality that they really can't stand up to. She's too precocious (she informed Nialla that she was pregnant!), too attuned to the emotions and motives of adults, too often in the right place at the right time. When I read the first novel to myself, I was charmed. Having it read to me, there were plenty of times when I just rolled my eyes and snorted. What could it be? I read very quickly; do I not give myself time to ponder, instead just let the story roll by unexamined?

Nevertheless, narrator Entwhistle is a pleasure to listen to. She has a slightly hoarse, but childlike speaking voice, and it even appears to contain a bit of a lisp. Her Flavia is smart, observant, funny, and every once in a while she betrays some childish longing for her dead mother (who left her infant daughter to scale a mountain) and for affection and support from her living family. But we can't, she tellingly explains, we're de Luces.

Entwhistle employs that English actor's skill of easily depicting class through accents, and here she has plenty of opportunity to show off: the vague Colonel de Luce, his pretentious and bossy sister, the clueless vicar, simple and straightforward Dogger, oily Rupert Porson, the devastated mother of the hanged boy, a breezy land girl, a German prisoner-of-war, a crazy bag lady, and Flavia's two self-centered sisters are all ably and interestingly portrayed.

I guess I'm a bit schizo about this series: I appreciate its humor and originality, but I can't keep myself from criticizing the fantasy of that originality. I've got a little while to decide whether to go on, goodness knows there are plenty of other books to read!

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag (A Flavia de Luce Mystery) by Alan Bradley.
Narrated by Jayne Entwhistle
Books on Tape, 2010. 9:50 (unabridged)

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