There are people who loathed Alan Bradley's previous novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, because they couldn't stand the book's preternaturally precocious heroine and narrator, 11-year-old Flavia de Luce. I am not among them. I found Flavia perfectly charming. Also incredibly articulate and knowledgeable about chemistry, especially poisons, and deeply and widely read in history, the arts and the classics of literature.
She also proved to be courageous, resolute and imaginative in adversity, beginning one dawn when she found a stranger dying in the garden of the crumbling family manor, Buckshaw, and in defending her reclusive philatelist father when he is suspected of committing the murder. She's Harriet the Spy by way of Agatha Christie, with a dash of Lemony Snicket and the Addams Family. Who could resist?
The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag - the cumbersome title comes from Sir Walter Raleigh To His Son, and is remarkably apt - opens in 1950, in the cemetery of the village of Bishop's Lacey. Flavia hears a woman crying, and eventually comes upon a broken van belonging to master puppeteer Rupert Porson - better known to his television audiences as Snoddy the Squirrel - and his assistant and lover, Nialla ("But you can call me Mother Goose"). Prevailed upon by the vicar, who recognizes a lack of ready cash when he sees it, Rupert agrees to mount a pair of puppet shows for the villagers, and Flavia is drafted as all-around helper and gofer.
The first show is an enormous hit. Rupert is not a pleasant man, but he is most definitely a superb puppeteer, a storyteller of great theatricality and skill. But the second show is interrupted by a shocking event during Jack and the Beanstalk: Rather than a puppet giant crashing down on the stage, it's Rupert, electrocuted by the parish hall's ancient electrical system.
The death is suspicious, the police are baffled and soon enough, Flavia is taking matters into her own hands, pedalling around the village on Gladys, her trusty bicycle, gathering information by observation, questioning witnesses both secretive and talkative (and at least one certifiably, barking mad) and, of course, doing research and performing experiments in the chemistry laboratory she "inherited" from her great-uncle Tarquin.
One of the many joys of both Flavia de Luce mysteries is her complex and colourful household at Buckshaw: her distracted, distant and eccentric father; Mrs. Mullet, the part-time cook whose inedible puddings are a staple of the dinner table; Dogger, the gardener, chauffeur, estate manager and odd-job man, who is subject to fits of massive depression but seems always to be there when you need him; Aunt Felicity, who has never had children of her own to raise, but who is not shy on her regular visits about pontificating on how to do it; Flavia's off-handedly cruel older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, who try to convince her A) that she's an orphan, and B) that her mother - an adventurer who died by falling off a Tibetan mountain when Flavia was one year old - never wanted her. (To be fair to the sisters, Flavia does persist in trying to poison them.)
Almost as entertaining are the villagers of Bishop's Lacey and environs, including Detective Sergeant Graves, returned from the previous adventure; the good-hearted Canon Richardson and his overly pious wife Cynthia; Dieter, a former German prisoner of war who stuck around after the war was over; Mad Meg, who haunts the Gibbet Wood; the Inglebys of Culverhouse Farm, whose young son died tragically five years before; and Ned, the teenage helper at the local inn, who is infatuated with Flavia's eldest sister, the self-regarding Ophelia (and with every other young woman in the neighbourhood).
All in all, it's a perfectly detailed and credible English village in the Agatha Christie manner, inhabited by people you can believe in and sympathize with. But determined sleuth Flavia de Luce is the bright centre of both books, with a voice so engaging and amusing that it's easy to overlook her unlikely depth and breadth of knowledge.
Bradley, born in Toronto and raised in Cobourg, Ont., spent 25 years as director of television engineering at the University of Saskatchewan and wrote several short stories and articles in that time, as well as two books. He took early retirement to focus on the Flavia de Luce novels, and plans to write a series of them. I'm ready.
H.J. Kirchhoff is an editor in The Globe and Mail's Books section.