The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag


2010, Alan Bradley (Bantam Books)

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley is the second novel in the Flavia de Luce series. I read the first one and knew that I would read the second.  The first was published in 2009 and this novel was released in 2010. I gave the first novel four stars and I will do the same with this one.

I have found that these novels either appeal to readers or readers cannot tolerate them. I confess that I am under Flavia’s spell. I think she is splendid and I enjoy following her detective exploits around the countryside. Now, I do not think the negative comments regarding the novel are all invalid, but I very uncharacteristically find the novels so charming that it outweighs any flaws. Such an unbalanced view of novels is rare and I admit that usually I am preaching about the completeness and fullness of works.

Bishop’s Lacey and Environs is actually very key in providing much of the charm of the novel. It is possible that Flavia would be equally captivating in other settings, but I really enjoy the pastoral country setting in which she pursues her mischief. The historical aspects of the war hang around and the astute reader should be able to pick up some of this darkness lurking just outside of the view of the novel. Were it not for Flavia’s brightness, a definite heaviness would overtake the story.

Some readers are turned off by the fact that Flavia is as “smart” as she is. They find it difficult to get beyond the fact that this eleven-year old girl is probably stronger in chemistry than they are. I think they may forget that without a TV, computers, and ridiculous distractions, a child can actually be very smart and learn a great deal from books and experiment. Flavia is “lucky” in that she lives in an old country manor which provides her resources many children her age would not have. She has a private laboratory and hundreds of books/journals/magazines to pour over and experiment from. In fact, this is how she spends her free time.

Because at the end of the day, it is not Flavia’s intelligence that is remarkable. It is actually her initiative, curiosity, and independence that makes her so great. She is never, really, a bored child and she entertains herself by motivating herself. That is something that is uncommon and it is entirely refreshing to read about.  That’s the main thing that I love about reading these novels. I love how Flavia does not just sit on her duff all day, but has dozens of projects she is continuously working on.  And often these projects are just for the sake of doing/making – not for profit or under duress.

Flavia also has a keen wit regarding adults and their interactions with children. She seems to be just old enough to be able to wheedle and wriggle whatever she wants from adults. Some might call her a bit deceitful, but it seems typical of her age group.  Having independence, yet still requiring so much from adults. She often treats them as if they are her equal, but yet putting on a variety of faces depending on what she wants or what the adult thinks she might be.  Flavia is the ultimate actress and because we see everything through her viewpoint, she thinks she has adults wrapped around her finger.  In reality, if the viewpoint were switched, it is clear that many adults find her difficult, annoying, but also unique and intelligent.

Overall, though, the plots of the two novels in the series leave me rather unimpressed. Oh, I suppose the mysteries are tied up effectively and the number of red herrings and clues is commensurate with the crimes.  Flavia does solve the mystery – to the consternation of the local police.

“You’re right, of course, Sergeant.  We don’t have the same entreé to the homes and hearths of Bishop’s Lacey, do we? Its an area in which we could do better.” – Inspector Hewitt pg. 340.

If Flavia doesn’t play entirely fairly with the adults in Bishop’s Lacey – she also does not with the reader. We follow her around and enjoy her conversations, however, most of her deductions she keeps to herself.  This is probably why the last few chapters, as Flavia explains things to the adults she remains so fascinating and marvelous.

The crime in this novel is actually related to a previous event that took place in Bishop’s Lacey. In a sense, Flavia solves two crimes in this novel.  However, the pieces that connect the two events are really pushing the limits into the outlandish. I mean, it does seem a bit convoluted. It is all possible and understandable, but I am not certain how plausible it is. It would be easy to be skeptical of these things.

Chapter Four contains Flavia at her wittiest. There is a chunk where she thinks about Beethoven, and this has nothing to do with the mystery, but it is laugh aloud worthy. Enjoy it! I do not think I can think of Beethoven again without Flavia’s thoughts on the matter. Well done, Bradley! So, I definitely enjoyed this novel. I think it is more or less suitable for most readers, although, certain events in this one are a little disturbing. Because, truly, murder is fundamentally disturbing.

4 stars

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