Monday, April 19, 2010

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag: A Flavia de Luce Mystery (Flavia De Luce Mysteries)After reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie a few months ago, I was looking forward to the second installment in the Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley. In The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag eleven-year-old Flavia puts her chemistry knowledge, curiousity, and intuitive reasoning skills to work to solve an unexpected murder that happens under the noses of practically the whole town of Bishop's Lacey - during a performance of "Jack and the Beanstalk" by a famous puppeteer. As Flavia pieces the evidence together, it becomes apparent that the murder of a 5-year-old boy some years before has a strange connection with the current events.

Flavia de Luce is an interesting character: sweet (only when necessary), smart, and (slightly) sinister at the same time. I certainly wouldn't want to be her mother or sister or neighbor - but she is unique among detective protagonists that I have read. Her relatively young age allows her to investigate things with supposed innocence, while at the same time she has the knowledge and wherewithal to effectively poison any one she might choose. That lends a rather unsettled feeling to her exploits since it seems like she's searching for truth, but one's never quite sure of her motives, except in the case of her sisters where her motives are quite clearly vengeful.

But if Flavia is young and precocious and her sisters self-centered and snobbish, some of the other characters have more depth, most often the result of grief or suffering, which is slowly revealed a little more in this sequel. One feels sorry for Flavia's father whose distance is explained as a result of the death of his wife ten years before: "Father paid us no attention. He had already retreated into his own world: a world of colored inks and perforations-per-inch; a world of albums and gum arabic; a world where our Gracious Majesty, King George the Sixth, was firmly ensconced on both the throne and the postage stamps of Great Britain; a world in which sadness - and reality - had no place" (161).

And then there is Dogger, the jack-of-all-trades (from butler to gardener) who suffers from post-war trauma and is fiercely loyal to the de Luce family, especially to Flavia and her father. I think I have a soft spot for English butlers in detective novels, but Dogger is Flavia's friend and sounding board - they understand one another and appreciate one another's eccentricities. I hope we learn more of his story and that he figures more prominently in future novels (Bradley is said to be working on another already).

As for the mystery, Bradley offers just enough clues to keep the reader guessing, and each hint seems to point to a different suspect. I found this novel to have a more surprising resolution than the first, although it was still a bit over-dramatic. I think the life or death endings might seem a little formulaic if the author continues that trend, though I will probably continue to read the series just to see what Flavia does next. As I said before, she doesn't have the charm of Lord Peter, but it's a fun read just the same.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor

An Irish Country DoctorAn Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor is a delightful introduction to the village of Ballybucklebo and it's two physicians. Although it is fiction, it is based on the author's journals when he was himself an Irish country doctor fresh out of medical school. There is the obligatory disclaimer - "All the characters and events portrayed in this novel are either fictitious or are used fictitiously" - and the author plainly denies any direct association between himself and Barry Laverty, the young doctor and protagonist of the tale. Nevertheless, it's easy to imagine the plausibility of most, if not quite all, of the characters and incidents, although I doubt all the tales could have been wrapped up so neatly in real life.

We are introduced to Barry Laverty, a recent graduate of medical school, as he is on his way to an interview as an assistant to an established general practitioner in a small village in Northern Ireland. It's the mid-1960's, and his main objective is merely to make the payments on his Volkswagen Beetle. However, he quickly realizes that Dr. Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly will give him an education in patient care that he never learned from his textbooks or residency. "...stick with me, son." O'Reilly says. "You'll learn a thing or two the books don't teach you" (51).

Dr. O'Reilly's unorthodox methods are well matched with his patients' eccentricities, which makes for very entertaining reading. As a retired naval surgeon, his language is a bit course at times, but his concern for his patients' lives, their heartaches and financial woes, as well as their aches and pains is certainly evident under his rough exterior. Dr. Laverty quickly learns to adapt his clinical methods to his clientele and is soon winning respect by delivering babies and correctly diagnosing thyroid problems. When he is devastated by a misdiagnoses, Dr. O'Reilly helps to put things in perspective: "...not living up to your own personal standards last night may seem like the end of the world to you. It's not. You'll make mistakes. Even when you've done absolutely everything right, you'll still ask yourself questions when somebody falls off the perch in spite of you. But none of us is te Pope in Rome speaking ex cathedra" (237).

I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more Irish lore and history in this novel, but it's obvious that wasn't the author's purpose. The story is driven by characters, and though those characters were shaped by history most of that is implied rather than explained. So we are only given brief descriptions of the relations between Protestants and Catholics in the town, passing mentions of lingering superstitions, and references to traditional food items. In the last category, Taylor did give a little extra by including three recipes at the end purportedly from the kitchen of Mrs. Kinkaid, better known as Kinky, Dr. O'Reilly's housekeeper, whose story is told in Taylor's newest novel, An Irish Country Girl.

I've heard Taylor's Irish Country books compared to All Things Bright and Beautiful and other titles by James Herriot, but from what I remember, Herriot's tales were more anecdotal, while An Irish Country Doctor recounts only a few weeks' worth of experiences, weaving together the stories of several families and individuals and neatly bringing closure to almost all of them. In that sense, I thought the denouement(s) was a little too good to be true, but it's fiction, and a happy ending all around is sure to please. I plan to read the other Irish Country novels in due time, but I think I'll reserve them for when I need a quick, positive read after some heavier fare.

I read this book as part of the 2010 Ireland Reading Challenge.