Miss Marple with a passion for poisons – Straight from the shelf Friday

It’s Friday again which means it’s time for ‘Straight from the shelf’ which can be taken literally because one of today’s featured books comes straight from my ‘Off the shelf’-challenge list. One down, 29 to go!

Apart from reviewing the book in this Friday’s edition I will talk a bit about German translations and English originals, book titles and cover designs.

‘The Weed that strings the Hangman’s bag’ ist the second novel in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. I came to read the first book (The sweetness at the bottom of the pie) because the cover of the German translation caught my eye while browsing a bookstore. Usually, I like the covers of the English originals better but the depiction of Flavia was quite noticeable in it’s slightly gaudy, gothic look.

There’s an interesting difference between the German and the original cover; the picture and design of the German translation puts it quite distinctly into the young adults / children’s section which is, in fact, where I stumbled about the first volume of this series. While the original book cover and design illustrates elements of the story as well as the German translation, the design is much more neutral and caters to a wider audience. I looked at two local bookstores with a reasonably big assortment of English books and found both titles in the general fiction or mystery & crime section.

Another difference lays in the choice of titles. The original titles ”The sweetness of the bottom of the pie’ and ‘The weed that strings the hangman’s bag’ stem from quotes – Sir Walter Raleigh for the second, William King for the first. Both German titles lose this connection for obvious reasons but again, the translated titles suggest a topic more suited for a younger audience.

This restriction to a smaller audience is a pity because – and with that I finally come to the real review – both books were a pleasure to read and the fact that the stories are told through the eyes and voice of 10-year-old protagonist Flavia de Luce doesn’t make this into a children’s book.

Both books have the makeup of a classical English whodunnit and are situated in an English village a few years after World War II. The de Luces are a family of four, with an often absentminded father who collects stamps and is overall painted as a stuffy widowed Englishman living in their ancestral home in a small village. Flavia is the youngest of three sisters and very interested in chemistry. She’s always thinking and talking about poisons and chemical reactions and puttering about a laboratory installed in the crumbling family manor by an ancestor. Her relationship with her older sisters is difficult and Flavia reacts to some of their verbal attacks with the use of some lower level poisons and other concoctions. While Flavia as a character is highly unrealistic her pragmatic and unorthodox views are entertaining and enable her to solve the central mystery of the murder.

The makeup of the novels is very reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series with Flavia as a child’s version of Miss Marple. Both characters solve murder cases with the application of unorthodox methods and Flavia’s Inspector Hewitt shows the same grudging approval to her findings as Inspector Slack in Christie’s Miss Marple novels. Even Flavia’s speech about how she ‘solved the case’ and leaving the Inspector stumped seems to come straight out of a Agatha Christie whodunnit with both Miss Marple and Poirot indulging themselves in the same fashion.

Yes, Flavia has a striking resemblance to Miss Marple, if the old lady had had a passion for poison and had been known for zipping through the countryside on her trusty bicycle called ‘Gladis’.

Despite this not very creative construction, both books were an entertaining and funny read.Since Agatha Christie’s mysteries are among my favourite books the familiar setting and the similarities between Flavia and Miss Marple made for an interesting read. I’m looking forward to the third volume of the series!


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