The story opens with the immortal words 'I was lying dead in the churchyard' (spoken, astonishingly, by Flavia herself) and ends with a funeral watched by the De Luce family on a newly-installed television set. In between, Alan Bradley weaves a hauntingly nightmarish tale that involves Punch & Judy - and in particular Mr Punch's nemesis, the hangman, Jack Ketch - a frighteningly realistic puppet show, and a hitherto unexplored corner of Bishop's Lacey known as Gibbet's Wood.
The plot, beginning with the arrival in Bishop's Lacey of a travelling puppet show, features a grisly murder during a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk in the village hall and reaches back to an earlier, even nastier crime centring on an ancient, rotting gibbet that has lain like a shadow over the village for years.
For Flavia, undoing the complex knot that ties these strands together will test her precocious powers of deduction to the limit - and provide a shocking insight into some of the darker corners of the adult world.
My take: 4 looks
Once again, Flavia de Luce proves to be one of my favorite characters. She is so tenacious, bold and witty that you can't help but love her (and despise her sisters just as much!). Here she is on the case again, always at the right place at the right time, and with the right resources.
The mystery and family dynamics blend well in this, the second of the Flavia de Luce Mystery series. I adore the sisterly spats between the three girls, with Flavia's love of chemistry (and especially poisons) taking it to a hilarious level. Her sisters know where to push her buttons, and she knows the chemical configurations to make them pay for it. Like the first book, this one contains a small thread of revenge that plays out throughout the book. A bit of a mystery-within-a-mystery.
We meet several more characters of Bishop's Lacey, and another member of the de Luce family. We also learn more about deceased mother, Harriett. The stories are perfectly standalone while building on the former. Just perfectly done, in my opinion.
Like any mystery, the book is character-heavy, but Bradley is such a great storyteller that the reader is familiar with each and the flow of the mystery is wonderfully fluid. The use of red herrings is pure perfection and slight twists and turns are very satisfying.
This entire series is highly recommended.