The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag
by Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press, 2010
384 pp. $24.00
If the book title The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag does not get your unrelenting attention immediately, rest assured that the very first lines of the novel will get you hooked. With a protagonist and first-person narrator like Flavia de Luce – a precocious, witty eleven-year-old amateur chemist and detective – the sequel to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a delectable read.
This second story set in the town of Bishop's Lacey revolves around the strange death of renowned puppeteer Rupert Porson, who agrees to perform a puppet show in exchange for repairs for his broken-down van. As the plot unfolds, every character becomes a murder suspect, from the warm and welcoming vicar to the madwoman living in Gibbet Wood. Is Nialla, Porson's ill-treated partner, more guilty than she is letting on? Can we trust Dieter, the German prisoner of war staying with the Inglebys? Should BBC producer Mutt Wilmott's suspicious behaviour be investigated any further? And what are we to read into the vicar's wife's cold blue eyes? In a small town filled with old, terrible secrets, it seems that everyone could have a motive, and the reader is left guessing until the very end. Stopping at nothing – and constantly risking getting in trouble at home – young Flavia hops onto her red bike Gladys in search of bits of evidence, and slowly sows the pieces together, only to reveal a chilling and twisted truth.
Bradley excels at setting a mysterious atmosphere for his second Flavia de Luce novel. However, the pace of the book can sometimes be uneven in the beginning, with some rather slow sections suddenly following very dynamic passages – this may cause a temporary loss of interest in the plot in the less motivated readers at first. While the moments of true suspense are rare in The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, they are well worth the wait, and the reader can be assured that the author's exquisite mastery of the English language will keep him reading until the surprising ending, as the novel is filled with rich and vivid imagery that make the narrative passages of the book just as delightful as the polished dialogues. Fans of Gothic literature will also certainly appreciate the book's gloomy opening passage, as well as Flavia's particular sense of observation and her hilarious schemes of revenge against her two tormenting sisters, Ophelia and Daphne.
Finally, though the narrator of the book is a child and must deal with situations pertaining to children – such as worrying about missing curfew and risking displeasing her father – the book should please readers of all ages, granted that they do not expect Flavia to meet the maturity and experience of Sherlock Holmes. De Luce may be very smart and witty for her age, she does remain an eleven-year-old, and that is part of what gives the character her charm and makes her remarks unique and interesting. All in all, The Weed that Strings the Handman's Bag is a solid, lighthearted, marvellously written mystery that makes a highly satisfying read.
Julie Leroux holds a B.A. degree in comparative literature from Université de Montréal and is currently pursuing an M.A. degree in English at McGill University. Her literary interests include Gothic writing, 19th century science fiction, the works of H.G. Wells and H. Lovecraft, and the impact of Darwinism on British literature.
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