Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
by Alan Bradley
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to The Sweetness of the Bottom of the Pie, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce unites her passion for chemistry (especially poisons), her keen wit, a lot of pedaling of a bicycle named Gladys and a willingness to use her girlish charms to open doors that are often closed to the police to solve her second murder mystery, only a few weeks after barely surviving her first one. This time the victim is a famous puppeteer who, during a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk at the local parish hall, comes crashing down on the stage instead of the expected giant. Adding color to his death is the disturbing resemblance between the hero puppet and a local five-year-old boy who accidentally hanged himself five years earlier. To Flavia it is soon clear the rope that killed the boy is somehow tied to the cutting of the puppet-master's strings. In order to solve one mystery, Flavia must solve the other.

The setting is the sleepy English village of Bishop's Lacey in 1950. The heroine is the youngest of three daughters of a widower who is passionate about stamp collecting but not very good at business management. While trying to avoid being at the service of her bossy visiting aunt, Flavia wears herself up cycling up and down the village, gathering clues and interviewing witnesses. The suspects include the German prisoner of war who discovered the dead boy's body, the boy's farmer father who trades in marijuana, a madwoman who lives in the woods, and the puppeteer's abused and pregnant assistant. The local vicar seems to have a disturbing secret, too, and his wife seems like the sort who might have done something nasty about it. In fact, there are altogether too many possibilities of whodunit and why. But Flavia, with her nose for scientific evidence, has a knack for figuring out what was done and how. And that leads her, with perhaps surprising directness, to a life-or-death struggle with the killer...


The more I get to know Flavia de Luce, the more I look forward to furthering the acquaintance. As a narrator she has a winning precocity, combining both a chillingly morbid streak with a purity and innocence that make one feel protective of her. Her wit is sharp, at times almost frighteningly so; yet her narration also sparkles with ironic touches of picaresque, such as when her inexperience leads her to misunderstand an adult reference. A gruesome murder lies at the center of the mystery - two murders, actually - but when the atmosphere isn't thick with suspense, it is lightened by humor or warmed by affection. I am pleased to learn this is only the second of eight Flavia de Luce mysteries at present. The next title, which I hope to start reading this week, is A Red Herring Without Mustard.

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