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by Alan Bradley
Doubleday Canada, March 2010
358 pages
$25.95 CAD
ISBN: 0385665849

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Flavia de Luce, eleven-year-old apprentice poisoner, certainly knows how to set a narrative hook. Her second adventure begins, "I was lying dead in the churchyard. An hour had crept by since the mourners had said their last sad farewells." Nor does she stop there, continuing with a fond, retrospective account of the funeral procession from the church, the grief of some, the satisfaction of others (her rotten sisters, mostly), and the oddness of hearing the Order for the Burial of the Dead from this particular vantage point. Of course, she isn't dead, merely indulging in a pre-adolescent bit of Romantic wallowing, as well we should have known. Flavia is Roman Catholic and if she were dead, would not wind up in the C of E churchyard with St Tancred's vicar praying over her, however ruefully.

St Tancred's is to figure largely in this second in this somewhat eccentric and delightful series, of which THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE was the first. Little time has passed since Flavia found a dying man in the garden and went on to solve the mystery of his death. She is still eleven, still riding Gladys, her bicycle, and still passionately fond of chemical experimentation, especially if it involves deadly poison. And she and her sisters are still at daggers drawn.

This time out she witnesses the sudden death of a children's television star, a puppeteer named Rupert Porson, who meets his end while giving a performance at St Tancred's church hall. Motivated far more by insatiable intellectual curiosity than any sense of justice, she digs away until she is once again successful in getting to the bottom of things, even though, in some odd way, she never quite comprehends the adult passions and emotions that figure into the matter.

The time is 1950, and television is just beginning to make its mark on the public imagination. At the end of the book, the de Luce family gathers to watch a televised funeral on a set specially hired for the occasion, but the spectacle that is most lovingly described and most lyrically evoked is a puppet show, Jack and the Beanstalk, wrought from traditional British folklore and still, at that moment in history, able to enchant adults and children both whose eyes are as yet unjaded by television's marvels.

Whether Alan Bradley is likewise able to conjure magic from traditional materials, in this case, the English country house mystery and the rich history of British children's literature, is, I suppose, a matter of taste. Many readers who found SWEETNESS too sweet will certainly not like THE WEED THAT STRINGS THE HANGMAN'S BAG. And others who were struck by the originality of the first in the series may find Flavia somewhat less engaging the second time around. Still, readers ready to allow themselves to be led by Flavia's strong, cool intelligence and sharp wit and Bradley's deft evocation of a past that never quite existed, will certainly welcome the reappearance of this most original heroine.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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