“But Flavia can’t be dead!” this reviewer thought as she read the first page of Alan Bradley’s latest novel starring the 11-year-old sleuth-cum-toxicologist, Flavia de Luce. Further reading reveals that of course she’s not dead, but only pretending to be. Like any other lonely and somewhat neglected child, Flavia wonders what her hateful sisters and distracted, widowed father would make of her death. Her conclusion: not much.
The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag picks up where 2009’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pieleft off, and like the first book, this one mines the vein of human sadness that exists alongside the fun and skullduggery. Along with Flavia’s isolation—she may not be the only living child in Bishop’s Lacey, but it feels like she is—Bradley’s far-reaching examination of the consequences of terrible grief and guilt add depth and poignancy to the book.
As Flavia lies in the cemetery contemplating her own demise, she hears weeping and goes to find a woman, Nialla, stretched out on a nearby grave. She turns out to be the assistant of Rupert Porson, a famous puppet master. He’s also a brute, especially to his many lovers, of whom Nialla is the latest. Soon there’s a murder at one of the puppet shows Porson puts on for the town, and Flavia goes to work, armed only with her chemistry set, her beat-up old bicycle and her preternatural intelligence.
It’s almost as if the Flavia books are the reminiscences of an eccentric pensioner, for it’s hard to see even a brilliant 11-year-old fully understanding all the grown-up tribulations (adultery, among other things) she encounters in the crimes she solves. But there’s also humor, as when Flavia injects a box of chocolates with swamp gas to show up her sister, or in the amazement of the town police when they find—again!—that she’s one step ahead of them. It’s both the humor and the pathos that keep Flavia from being annoying and unbelievable, like Charles Wallace Murry, the smugly infallible boy genius from Madeleine L’Engle’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time.
The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, for all its tragedy, is still a delight from the inimitable Alan Bradley.
Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.
Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2010 January #1
Almost 11 and keen on poisons, Flavia de Luce gets a second chance to broaden her lethal knowledge.Roused from a detailed fantasy of her own funeral by a nosy jackdaw and the sound of a woman weeping, Flavia encounters Mother Goose--or so the pretty redhead introduces herself. Actually Nialla only plays the role in Rupert Porson's puppet show, currently bogged down with van trouble. The vicar of Bishop's Lacey suggests a mechanic and puts the puppeteer and his assistant up with the Inglebys at Culverhouse Farm. Rupert will repay the help by staging his production of "Jack and the Beanstalk" at St. Tancred's parish hall. Oddly, although Rupert claims never to have met the Inglebys before, his Jack puppet bears the face of their son Robin, deceased five years ago in what a 1945 inquest termed misadventure. Inspector Hewitt, whose first acquaintance with Flavia (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, 2009) solved a murder, must wait patiently once more while Flavia chats up the neighbors, breaks into the library, researches the past, washes down scones, horehound candies and cucumber sandwiches with tea, and sabotages a box of chocolates meant for one of her tormenting sisters.A gloriously eccentric cast of characters, from Flavia's dad, whose stamp collection is bankrupting the ancestral digs, to her sisters Ophelia and Daphne, who tell Flavia she was a foundling. There's not a reader alive who wouldn't want to watch Flavia in her lab concocting some nefarious brew. Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2010 February #1
When our heroine, conducting a mock funeral for herself in the village churchyard, encounters a weeping red-headed woman, the 11-year-old's precocious wit and sympathy immediately charm the tearful Nialla: "I like you, Flavia de Luce." The many readers who made Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie a best seller will concur, and newcomers, too, will fall under Flavia's spell in this second sleuthing adventure. Nialla is the assistant to master puppeteer Rupert Porson, whose van has broken down in the English hamlet of Bishop's Lacey. When he is fatally electrocuted during a performance, Nialla becomes a suspect in his murder. Putting aside her chemistry experiments and poisoning plots against her tormenting older sisters, Flavia sets out on her trusty bike, Gladys, to investigate. VERDICT While the plot at times stretches credulity, with some characters veering close to Agatha Christie stereotypes, Flavia is such an entertaining narrator that most readers will cheerfully go along for the ride. Sure to appeal to Anglophiles and mystery fans nostalgic for the genre's Golden Age. [See Prepub Mystery, LJ 11/1/09; see Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/09; library marketing; available as an ebook and unabridged CD.]--Wilda Williams, Library Journal[Page 54]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
Bradley's endlessly entertaining follow-up to 2009's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie finds precocious 11-year-old Flavia de Luce once again indulging her curiosity about corpses. Wandering near her threadbare ancestral home in early 1950s England, Flavia bumps into famed TV puppeteer Rupert Porson and his pregnant wife, who have been marooned by an ailing van. While they wait for repairs to be completed, they agree to put on a performance for the village of Bishop's Lacey--but Rupert's sudden death ends the show. Feigning an innocence entirely at odds with her shrewdness about adult doings, Flavia uses her skills in chemistry and questioning to puzzle out which of the many possible suspects murdered Rupert and why. The author deftly evokes the period, but Flavia's sparkling narration is the mystery's chief delight. Comic and irreverent, this entry is sure to build further momentum for the series. (Mar.)[Page 101]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.