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Flavia thinks that her days of crime-solving in the bucolic English hamlet of Bishop's Lacy are over--and then Rupert Porson has an unfortunate rendezvous with electricity. The beloved puppeteer has had his own strings sizzled, but who'd do such a thing and why? For Flavia, the questions are intriguing enough to make her put aside her chemistry experiments and schemes of vengeance against her insufferable big sisters. Astride Gladys, her trusty bicycle, Flavia sets out from the de Luces' crumbling family mansion in search of Bishop's Lacey's deadliest secrets.
Does the madwoman who lives in Gibbet Wood know more than she's letting on? What of the vicar's odd ministrations to the catatonic woman in the dovecote? Then there's a German pilot obsessed with the Bronte sisters, a reproachful spinster aunt, and even a box of poisoned chocolates. Most troubling of all is Porson's assistant, the charming but erratic Nialla. All clues point toward a suspicious death years earlier and a case the local constables can't solve--without Flavia's help. But in getting so close to who's secretly pulling the strings of this dance of death, has our precocious heroine finally gotten in way over her head?
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 101.
- Review Date: 2010-01-25
- Reviewer: Staff
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.)
More dark fun with Flavia
“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.