The return of pre-pubescent amateur detective Flavia de Luce has been long-awaited. Since bursting on to the crime scene last year - Famous Five-style, cycling furiously around the countryside - she has built up quite a fan base for Canadian author Alan Bradley. His debut novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, was one of my favourite reads of last year - and the review was probably the single most-searched post on Material Witness in 2009.
Part of what made the book so successful and enjoyable was the sheer unexpectedness of it, a surprisingly joyous read. That only works once, of course, and Bradley's second novel The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag could not match the pleasure of coming across Flavia for the first time and finding her such good company. So instead other virtues had to come to the fore: plot, characterisation, wit and deft narrative.
And so they did. Perhaps the book's most appealing trait is its glorious ensemble of 1950 English eccentrics, thrown together in the Christiesque rural haven of Bishop's Lacey: the charismatic travelling puppeteer; the battleaxe vicar's wife; the evil, sneering sisters (Flavia's sisters Daffy and Feely); the kooky aunt; the disturbed but trusted retainer; the gossiping cook. Throw in a sinister bureaucrat from the BBC, a handsome former German POW and Flavia herself - amateur detective and playtime poisoner - and you have quite the cast.
If the plot is not quite as tight or assured as Flavia's first outing it is still lively and entertaining enough. The caravan of travelling showman and small time broadcast celebrity Rupert Porson and his female companion Nialla breaks down in Bishop's Lacey. After accepting the assistance of Flavia and the vicar in his hour of need, Porson agrees to put on a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk in the church hall while waiting for his vehicle to be repaired.
During the show, however, the famous puppeteer is murdered in full site of the entire village. As the bungling local cops launch their investigation, Flavia follows suit and soon finds that it may be no coincidence that Porson found himself in Bishop's Lacey, nor that he was killed there. Flavia finds a tangled web and using her ingenuity, courage and formidable talent for interfering quickly starts trying to unravel it.
There is much to enjoy here. A golden age style murder mystery which continuously dangles the answer to the story in front of the reader but never quite leaving it within reach. There is wit and comedy, clever, snappy writing and a fine heroine. In all this is good, clean sleuthing fun and Flavia's reputation will continue to grow with it.