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

(orion, $39)

Every other detective in the fictional world comes up looking a right old dry-balls next to Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce. Flavia is not quite 11, a motherless girl running riot in the sleepy 1950s town of Bishop’s Lacey. With two spiteful sisters telling her she’s adopted and a stamp obsessed father who barely notices her, Flavia could well be forgiven for fading into the wallpaper, but she’s not really the fading sort.

Instead, she applies her considerable might to the task of solving the murder of Rupert Porson, puppeteer extraordinaire, whose string-pulling comes to a rather shocking end after a lavish performance of Jack and the Beanstalk lights up the parish hall in ways no-one was expecting.

I loved the first book in the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and was wondering if Alan Bradley could keep up the pace – there are to be six Flavia mysteries in all, I believe – but not only does he keep it up, he steps it up.

Using her extraordinary skill in her uncle’s long-abandoned Victorian chemistry lab and her talent at wheedling details out of grown-ups who don’t notice what they’re saying to 10-year-olds, she puts the Bishop’s Lacey constabulary to shame. But precocious in the modern sense, Flavia certainly isn’t. She may be able to perform the Ehrlich pregnancy test on a woman’s handkerchief using sulfosalicylic acid but she has to ask Dogger, the shellshocked family retainer, what exactly an “affair” entails. (It’s when a man and a woman become the greatest of friends, he kindly explains.)

Alan Bradley has had a long career as a writer – an earlier highpoint was being the co-writer of a controversial book suggesting that Sherlock Holmes was a woman – but Flavia has brought him fame and fortune at the ripe old age of 70, proving his theory that 99% of success is keeping at it. He’d better, because I’m already hanging out for the next installment. Such sheer, unadulterated, laugh-out loud escapism doesn’t fall into your lap every day, after all.

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