THE WEED THAT STRINGS THE HANGMAN’S BAG by Alan Bradley
“Carefully, I injected each chocolate with a drop or two of the stuff, touching the injection site with a glass rod (slightly warmed in the Bunsen burner) to smooth over the little hole.
“I had carried out the procedure so perfectly that only the faintest whiff of rotten egg reached my nostrils. Safe inside the gooey centers, the hydrogen sulfide would remain cocooned, invisible, unsuspected, until Feely –
Review by Kirstin Merrihew (MAR 8, 2010)
Young Flavia Sabina de Luce, chemistry whiz, accomplished amateur detective, and sometime drama queen, is back! She says she trying to be a better person, but she still at least thinks rude retorts, forgets to come home for Mrs. Mullet’s strange meals, steals into houses and businesses to collect evidence, opens coffins and peers inside to confirm forensic theories, and gives as good as she gets to her older sisters.
It remains 1950, and the Bonepenny murder is no distant memory yet. Thoughts of what it means to die occupy Flavia’s vivid imagination in the churchyard on a particular summer day, and she thinks she is alone until she hears sobbing. Of course, she investigates. Soon she is acquainted with famous BBC puppeteer Rupert Porson and his assistant, Nialla. Their van has broken down and their tuppence in hand don’t stretch enough for the repairs. The vicar suggests they give a couple performances in Bishop’s Lacey to earn cash, and they agree. After more than a day of preparations, with which Flavia helps, the matinee goes off without a hitch. However, the evening’s “Jack and the Beanstalk” ends shockingly. Flavia, of course, can’t leave the police work to Inspector Hewitt and his stalwarts. Using her own brand of cunning, coy charm; she ferrets out local history that could give motive to murder. The “misadventure death” of a five–year-old in 1945 becomes part of her inquiries, as does the story of the German prisoner of war who still works on a local farm. Flavia applies her wits (and her wit), her kid’s energy, and her scientific genius to get at the truth.
The mysteries in The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag arguably don’t quite match, in complexity or intensity, those in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I expected a few more revelations than actually materialized. This second Flavia book, however, provides more opportunities to get to know this remarkable character and those around her. Dogger, the family factotum, demonstrates that when he’s lucid, he can keep stride with Flavia in the deduction department. Haviland de Luce, Flavia’s father, who mainly exerts parental privilege to keep his youngest daughter from constantly disappearing, still has a tendency to mentally retire in uncomfortable situations. But he can defend his daughters when pushed — although seldom against each other. He also tells Flavia to look past the surface when it comes to his visiting sister.
One of the warmest, most insightful scenes in Weed is an unlikely conversation between Flavia and said paternal sister. Flavia usually thinks Aunt Felicity oppressive and odd, but when the girl asks what her mother was like, Felicity tells her, “Good heavens, child! If you want to see your mother, you have no more than to look in the glass. If you want to know her character, look inside yourself. You’re so much like her it gives me the willies.” Then Felicity urges to Flavia to listen to her own inspiration. “You must let your inner vision be your Pole Star,” she tells her. “Even if it leads to murder?” Flavia boldly asks. Her aunt assures her yes. Flavia wants to throw her arms around “this dotty old bat in her George Bernard Shaw costume and hug her until the juices [run] out.” But a de Luce has much more British reserve than that. So, Flavia settles for telling her, “Thank you, Aunt Felicity…You’re a brick.”
The generally unhurried pace of this novel allows for such enjoyable interludes. Another one occurs when the family gathers to listen to music on the wireless. Some are less comforting however: Â Her sisters’ unkindness to her almost jumps the shark here. In fact, the Flavia/Cinderella comparison, which she invokes, feels quite appropriate. In Sweetness, we knew the sisters feuded unmercifully, but it seemed more in fun than it does in this sequel. Although Flavia once again sets out to “poison” them, her humanity is not really in doubt. Feely and Daffy, however, go too far on at least one occasion.
The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag is, happily, rife with examples of Flavia’s indomitable and often acidic sense of humor.When Nialla says Flavia looks like the kind of kid who smokes, the girl is actually dumbfounded. But she quickly recovers and gamely flings back, “I was thinking of taking it up next week….I just hasn’t actually got round to it yet.”
Amusingly, Flavia tells the reader, “I have never much cared for flippant remarks, especially when others make them, and in particular, I don’t give a frog’s fundament for them when they come from an adult. It has been my experience that facetiousness in the mouth of someone old enough to know better is often no more than camouflage for something far, far worse.” A successful detective has to be able to read people, and Flavia does quite well for someone either already or nearly eleven years old. She is terribly precocious — sometimes too knowing to be believed. But she does have limits — as when she goes to Dogger to ask about what “having an affair” really means. Poor old Dogger. What will he say?
This mystery also provides Flavia with plenty of opportunities to slip away to the handsomely equipped lab handed down through Uncle Tar and then her mother. Observing Flavia test someone’s bodily fluids or isolating a gas is great fun. Even outside the lab and in a terrible pinch, she can roust ingredients needed to be open to a charge of, in the words of Inspector Hewitt: “practicing medicine without a license.”
This second in the Flavia series follows the form of the first by creating interesting psychological portraits. What does make Nialla stay with a man who gives her black and blue marks? How is a man with a wasted limb from infantile paralysis (polio) marked inwardly by his disability? How does he live with his chronic pain? Why does the German POW, Dieter, speak nearly perfect English, and why hasn’t he been shipped back to Germany? What hidden talents lurk within Mad Meg? Is she really delusional? What might a farmer want to keep secret about his crops? What happens to the psyche of a mother whose only child dies tragically? How do a minister of God and his wife balance the needs of the parishioners against their own? Should a “blue-blood” teenager go all crushy for a man who wore an enemy uniform only five years ago? These, and many other human questions are raised.
Author Alan Bradley, besides liberally sprinkling in culture and chemistry, doesn’t neglect to weave in a small, new plot point about stamps, a salute to the previous case that brought Flavia (and himself) fame. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag is a superior and lovely cozy mystery. Bring on Flavia #3, Mr. Bradley. Oh, and if Flavia gets to investigate her own mother’s death in it or another future novel, so much the better.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 117 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Delacorte Press (March 9, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Alan Bradley|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:|
- Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (April 2009)
- The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (April 2009)
- A Red Herring Without Mustard (February 2011)
- I Am Half Sick of Shadows (November 2011)