Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Flavia Returns, in The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag / Alan Bradley
Toronto: Doubleday, c2010.
348 p.

For those who have read the first book in this series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, you will need no introduction to the marvellous 11 yr old, Flavia de Luce. For any others, you must read this book and get to know the precocious and hilarious Flavia, who is in fine form here.

Rupert Porson, puppeteer extraordinaire, turns up in the churchyard of Flavia's small English village when his van breaks down. Flavia, not surprisingly, is relaxing in the graveyard and gets into the middle of things as the Vicar asks Rupert and his assistant Nialla to put on a show while they wait for their vehicle to be repaired.

A beautiful description of a marionette show follows, but then, of course, there is a sudden and unexpected death. Flavia's curiosity and chutzpah (and her youthful age yet lack of any adult supervision) give her entrée into places in the village which the police can't get to. Her chemistry experiments also provide her with vital clues, and she solves the case before the police do. The scene is which she is patiently explaining it all to the Inspector, while also offhandedly noticing the admiring looks she is getting, is quite entertaining.

The mystery in this volume is more front and centre than in the first, and there is less of Flavia's family and surroundings, which is too bad. I really liked those parts of the first book. However, this book highlights Flavia herself, and really, she is the main event in this series. In this one Flavia is hilarious as she speeds around the village chasing down clues and sneaking into various places, including an undertaker's viewing room. Even at home her sardonic voice can't stop observing and analyzing, much to the reader's amusement. Here she is commenting on Beethoven's Fifth, when she and her sisters are forced to listen to it as part of her father's attempt at a family 'music night' tradition:

Although he was a very great musician, and a wizard composer of symphonies,
Beethoven was quite often a dismal failure when it came to ending them. The Fifth was a perfect case in point.

I remembered that the end of the thing, the allegro, was one of those times when Beethoven just couldn't seem to find the "off" switch.

Dum...dum...dum-dum-dum, it would go, and you would think it was over.

But no --

Dum, dah, dum, dah, dum, dah, dum, dah, dum, dah, dum -- DAH dum.

You'd get up and stretch, sighing with satisfaction at the great work you'd just listened to, and suddenly:

DAH dum. DAH dum. DAH dum. And so forth. DAH dum.

It was like a bit of flypaper stuck to your finger that you couldn't shake off. The bloody thing clung to life like a limpet.

I remembered that Beethoven's symphonies had sometimes been given names: the Eroica, the Pastorale, and so forth. They should have called this one the Vampire, because it simply refused to lie down and die.

In this volume Flavia also takes revenge on her oldest sister Ophelia (Feely) for tormenting her with the suggestions that a) Flavia is adopted or b)their mother never liked her and died as a result of Flavia's birth. In the first volume, Flavia decants an allergen to add to Feely's cosmetics; in this, she cleverly adds a sulphurous element to a gift of chocolate. The descriptions of Flavia busy in her chemistry lab are elegant and so clever. Full points for scientific content in these mysteries!

I find this series fun and charming thus far, and am looking forward to the third volume, which Bradley is currently working on. This book highlights the fact that Flavia's father is hopeless in the real world, and that they are quite short of money; does this suggest a money making scheme in Flavia's future? I hope so -- I can see her being successful at any kind of scheme she put her mind to.

Alan Bradley was recently the guest editor at the National Post's Afterword. He contributed some intriguing essays about how he came to write these books and how their success has affected his life. They are very short - pop over and learn a little more about him if you are so inclined.

And although this doesn't have much to do with this specific review, I encourage everyone to search out Alan Bradley's memoir from a few years ago, The Shoebox Bible, just because I like it! I found it a moving tribute to his mother, and a gentle read with some very funny scenes as well.


  1. Oh, you lucky person! It's not out here in the UK yet, but I am waiting eagerly for it - even more so now I've read your review.

  2. What fun. It's nice to hear that Flavia rides again (sort of metaphorically speaking) and that her interest in applied chemistry continues.

  3. I devoured this one in two days! Huge Flavia fan!

  4. Geranium Cat - you will love it!

    Jeff - she does ride again...she and her trusty bicycle Gladys! Yes, I love the scientific elements as well.

    Luanne - yes, I am too! Wasn't this an easy and entertaining read?!

  5. I've heard so many good things about this series. I'll have to add it to my Hunger Games tbr series.

  6. I love Flavia and can't wait to read this very soon.


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