You will either love or hate The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley. I love it. It is the second of three volumes (to date) featuring the precocious eleven year sleuth Flavia de Luce. It is set in a quintessential 1950s village skillfully constructed by the Canadian author with all the Golden Age crime fan could desire in the way of churches, vicars, village greens and tea shops.
Flavia lives in rambling country house with her bullying elder sisters Feely and Daffy, and her eccentric, stamp collecting father. Her mother is dead. She is a lonely child, witty and insightful, and mad about chemistry. With her trusty bike she roams the village and its surrounding countryside getting into scrapes and finding out more about her neighbours than anyone bargains for, be it her family or the local police. The house is a post-war shambles; it is the sort of building so large and ill maintained that an entire chemistry lab can be forgotten about in one disused wing.
Whilst an excellent piece of crime fiction in its own right it is also a wonderful pastiche. It evokes all that was good in the Golden Age crime novel but the distance in time lends it an ironic air. I notice that a review from The Guardian describes as a cross between Dodie Smith's I Capture The Castle and The Adams family. there is some truth in that, but it reminded me more of cross between the gothic excesses of Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight with early lives of the Mitford sisters (I can see Decca as Flavia) and Enid Blyton's Find-Outers: Fatty has his disguises where Flavia has her chemistry lab.
At the start of The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag Flavia, on one of her excursions, meets a travelling puppet theatre company. Rupert star of the BBC, and Nialla, the latest in a string of pretty assistants, run the little show. Sharper than her years, Flavia guesses all is not well in their relationship and when their performance at the church hall ends in murder, Flavia is determined to revisit the death of a small boy some years earlier in her search for the truth.
Leavening it above the average historical crime novel are is its humour and its adroit handling of minor characters. Along side the crime the book is very funny. The story of the English literature loving WWII German airmen being shot down outside Haworth was a highlight that I was compelled to read aloud to anyone who could be persuaded to listen. But it is also poignant, and in its handling of handyman Dogger and his post-war trauma is really quite delicate.
The village of Bishop Lacey is wonderfully imagined and ticks all the cosy boxes, but like the potentially annoying Flavia, who at one stage attempts to poison her own sister, all is not sweetness and light. This is a murder story for grown-ups and any sweetness has a very dark centre. The tea room does after all have an interconnecting door with the undertakers. If you don't like Flavia you won't like the book, but I loved Flavia and I found Bradley's very twenty-first century resurrection of the world of Allingham and Christie simply addictive.