Review ‘The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag’ by Alan Bradley

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This Alan Bradley story is deserving of 10 stars.  The irony, the wit and the revealing portrayal of 1950s English village life, is both hilarious and horrible.  Events are seen through the eyes of young Flavia de Luce, an implausibly precocious 11 year old girl who lives with her family in genteel decline.

Young Flavia’s encounters turn into forensic investigations and she has an inherent love of chemistry, brewing dangerous concoctions in her late grandfather’s lab.

The village of Bishop’s Lacey appears to be close-knit, yet even gossipy Mrs Mullet didn’t seem to know who or what killed young Robin Ingleby at Gibbet Hill.  The story really kicks off when well-known BBC puppeteer and bully Rupert Porson gives his last performance.  The scene-setting is brilliantly done and I felt immersed in the story from the beginning right through to the end.

Perhaps not a book for younger readers because they may get tired of the mid-20th century writing style.  Mature readers who like a quirky character will enjoy this tale.  I have never encountered the likes of Flavia de Luce, a strange mixture of Wednesday Addams and Bones.

But she certainly knows how to snoop or turn on the charm when necessary.

Generally the main players are conventional but it’s what I expected, having been raised on a diet of British books, magazines and television series.  Their dialogue and the descriptions of village society in post-war Britain were familiar to me – at least fictionally – and it’s clever how the tension and Flavia’s ‘fluctuations’ from girl to grown-up and back again is established.

Question: Apart from the shock value, what is the significance of Jack’s puppet face?  And I don’t mean who it represents.

‘The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag’ is book 2 in the current 10 book Flavia de Luce mystery series, and takes its title from Sir Walter Raleigh.  With my thanks to Goodreads friend and writer Chris Hall for recommending this delightfully different book.

Gretchen Bernet-Ward


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Alan Bradley is a mystery writer known for his Flavia de Luce series featuring this pre-teen sleuth with a passion for chemistry.  The series began with the acclaimed ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’.  See more books in the series at Penguin Random House.  Bradley is also a New York Times bestselling author of many short stories, children’s stories, newspaper columns, and the memoir ‘The Shoebox Bible’.  More about Alan Bradley

Coach Departing Now, Folks

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Made in England – china dessert bowl – date and manufacturer unknown.

A rather dramatic story is unfolding in my breakfast bowl.

Cereals and desserts have been eaten from this bowl for over thirty years and yet I have never properly looked at the picture on it.

A few days ago I had a shock when I scooped up the last spoonful of my Weet-Bix (similar to the UK Weetabix, both invented by Bennison Osborne, an Australian) and saw there was a castle on the hill.  I kid you not, I had never seen that castle before!

Allow me to acquaint you with some backstory.  Originally there was a set of six china bowls (15 centimetres or 6 inches across) and originally my parents owned them.  Unfortunately porridge, domestic accidents, and heating leftovers in the microwave have whittled them down.  Of the surviving two, one has a nasty looking fault line appearing.  Therefore, the bowl I have photographed may be the end of the ceramic line.  Or the end of the beginning of a coach trip.

So far, so boring—but wait.  Although this bowl is old, I have to be honest and say it is not an antique.  In fact the picture may have been embossed on like a transfer and glazed over.  Never mind, I’m getting to the point, well, ten points actually—

  First there is the brooding castle on the hill; quite a substantial pile.  A name doesn’t immediately spring to mind but I’m working on it.

  Nestled halfway down the hill is a gamekeeper or crofter’s cottage.

  In the valley at the base of the hill is a small village.  An unaccompanied lady is standing on the side of the unpaved road which runs past the Duck Inn.  She isn’t over-dressed and uses a walking cane.  Her gaze is towards the two gentlemen opposite, chatting beside the milestone.  Perhaps this marker reads “London 100 miles” but I can’t decipher it.

  One of the toffs (lord of the manor) is holding a buggy whip.  He would not have ridden a horse down from the castle in a top hat.  He could be the lady’s son and heir up to no-good, he spends too much time in the tavern.  Or she may be his old faithful nanny, instructed to keep an eye on him.  Or yet again, she could be the wife of the man canoodling in the middle of the road.

  We see two lovers canoodling in the middle of the road.  The man is keener than the woman, and a dog is either giving them a wide berth or coming around behind the man to nip him on the ankle.

  Unbeknown to the busily occupied people, a cat slinks into the rear footwell of the coach.  Earlier he had been shooed away but being a feline named Nosey…

  Outside the Duck Inn (a duck is painted on the sign) the coach boy is making final preparations for the horses’ feedbags.  He loves them ‘orses.

  The coach driver is ready and waiting.  He’s heard rumours that Dick Turpin is lurking in the vicinity (if I’m in the right century) and wants to get going well before nightfall.  The innkeeper loaned him a pistol and it digs into the small of his back.

  Seven people are milling about.  At least four are passengers judging by the loading of a trunk on the roof, a well-wrapped parcel in somebody’s hands, and a family group perhaps saying goodbye.  The husband could be off to London on business and the daughters are sad but the wife is glad he’s out of her hair for a few days.

  Lastly, a curtain twitches at one of the attic windows of the Duck Inn.

There are leafy details in the background and in the foreground the stone wall appears to be crumbling.  I have looked for birds but only managed to spy a tiny number 9 in the garden beneath the Duck Inn sign.  A maker’s mark?

And that’s it.  There are no hallmarks or stamps on base of the bowl except the words “Made in England”.  I have no idea if the picture is fake-aged or has been copied from an earlier (original) tableware design.

One thing is for sure, it has given me a good idea for an historical short story.  Visual prompts are another way to overcome writer’s slump.  Look hard at any image and you will find a story to tell.

Check your kitchen cupboards, your own crockery may have a narrative in the making!

Gretchen Bernet-Ward