Co-Review, Fiction, Mystery

Co-review: The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag

Caren and I both loved Alan Bradley’s book The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and decided, since we’re on a sequels kick for co-reviews these days, that we would do one for his next book.  The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag is another tale of mystery and murder with Flavia de Luce, chemist, poisons expert, detective, adventurer, clever liar, and not-quite-eleven-year-old.  This time she is investigating the mysterious murder of Rupert Porson, a puppeteer who arrived in Bishop’s Lacey–the town in England where the story takes place–under unknown circumstances.  Porson is a famous man with his own television show on the BBC, and his puppets are beloved by children and adults the country over.  When his van breaks down in Bishop’s Lacey near the parsonage, Flavia starts to help him out of curiosity.  As she noses out some mystery having to do with Porson’s assistant, Nialla, Flavia can’t resist snooping some more.

Flavia discovers that Porson is not a stranger to her small town and that somehow he is tied up with the mysterious death of Robin Ingleby, a young boy who died five years before.  Flavia also stumbles across a German POW who is working for the Inglebys and his role in events also surface.  In addition to all this, Flavia’s Aunt Felicity comes to town to put their disastrous financial affairs in order and to chastise Flavia’s father.  There’s a lot going on, I know.  There’s so many more new characters in this book, but we still have the delightful, gossipy Mrs. Mullett, the traumatized and complicated Dogger, and Flavia’s fiendish sisters.  Each character is a delight.

With prompting from the vicar, Porson puts on a puppet show for the town.  It’s like nothing anyone has ever seen, with obvious skilled craftsmanship.  When Porson drops dead at the finale instead of his giant puppet, Flavia instantly begins her detective work.  With her fascination with death and her precocious ability to ferret out facts, the police department is lucky to have her on the case.

As always, we don’t hold back in these co-reviews.  Since this book is a mystery and the ending a fairly good surprise, I don’t recommend reading this if you don’t want it ruined for you.  Seriously.  Don’t read this.  Go read the first and second books, then come back.

Jenny:  Flavia is one of my new favorite characters.  She’s so clever, so funny, so delightfully macabre that I can’t get enough.  I wrote down page numbers of sections where I laughed out loud.  The part where she decides to ask Dogger what it means to have an affair?  Oh my gosh, I giggled so hard that my husband had to put down his book to ask me what was so funny.  Flavia is unapologetic about her methods and means.  For example, I loved this sentence so much I wrote it down: “I suppose there must have been times when I hated myself for practicing such deceits, but I could not think of any at the moment.  It was Fate, after all, who thrust me into these things, and Fate would jolly well have to stand the blame.”  Oh man, she’s a hoot.

I think I actually liked this book better than the first one.  It was more shocking and funny and engaging.  I remember having to give the first book a second chance after almost returning it to the library, but this one I dove in and finished in a few days.  But that could also be because I knew what good stuff was waiting for me.

Caren: I loved the first book, and enjoyed this one just as much.  Maybe even more because I am a bigger Flavia de Luce fan now.  During the first book, I was so unsure of what to make of her — she amazed me and creeped me out at the same time — so I hesitated to fully embrace her and her quirkiness.  But now that I’ve had some history with her, I felt like I could relax and enjoy her bizarre talents without reserve.

While I was reading, I tried to decide if you had to have read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie to appreciate this one.  I think it would definitely help, but isn’t necessary.  Bradley did a good job of filling in any important information without giving away spoilers from the first book.

Oh, and I loved her conversation with Dogger about what it means to have an affair too!  And she is perfectly satisfied with his explanation that two people having an affair “became the greatest of friends.”  Priceless!  Her maturity and intelligence juxtaposed with moments like that which showed her youth and vulnerability made her all the more likeable.

I’m curious how much of the chemistry in the story is accurate.  She’s such a MacGyver when it comes to her homemade experiments.  It’s awesome!  And I can’t help but wonder how much research Bradley does for these novels and whether her exploits are at all realistic.

Jenny:  I bet he does his research, especially if you look at how long his acknowledgments are at the end of the book.  Plus, you gotta know people will write him and say, “Now on page 137, you mentioned these two compounds and they wouldn’t really do that, blah blah blah.”  The prospect of dealing with that would get me to do my research, anyway.

I didn’t feel any hint of how the mystery would unfold.  Bradley kept me in the dark.  I’m curious if you had any hints as to how it played out.

Flavia is MacGyver!  If MacGyver was a prepubescent girl obsessed with poison, anyway.  I was totally impressed with how she used her wits to save Grace at the end.  But those moments in the book make me think Bradley is trying to make her too clever and fast-thinking, beyond what is believable.  Then he reminds us that she’s just a little girl through the torment her older sisters put her through.  Ah, Bradley, you tricky author you.

Caren: I didn’t figure out who did it either.  I did suspect it was Rupert at the seaside when Sally mentioned the Punch and Judy show, but I didn’t figure out the implications that he and Grace Ingleby had a thing going.  And I sort of had a hard time remembering Rupert was supposed to be such a ladies’ man when all we saw of him was being an abusive jerk. I had kind of hoped that it was Cynthia or Mad Meg who killed Rupert because they would have made much better murderers than poor, pathetic Grace.

I really enjoyed learning more about Harriett, especially when Aunt Felicity tells Flavia that she is just like her mother.  I loath Flavia’s sisters for how horrible they are to her and I hope that Bradley has some sort of redemption planned for her, because her home life really stinks.

One thing Bradley does really well is setting an eery tone.  The rotting gallows at the abandoned crossroads in the middle of the wood; the puppet with Robin’s face; the shrine in the dovecote; they were all wonderfully creepy!

Jenny:  Yes, Bradley does masterfully create a scene.  I often felt like I was right beside Flavia as she raced around on Gladys, her bicycle.  When Flavia went to the old auto shop to retrieve some research, I got shivers when I remembered how she was trapped in there in the first book.  I love an author who can describe a scene so well that I find myself there with the characters.  Makes it so much more fun to read.

When Aunt Felicity tells Flavia that she is just like her mother, I cheered!  Those stinky sisters of hers, aptly nicknamed Feely and Daffy, are probably just jealous that their little sister ended up so much like their mother.  Like you said, I really hope Bradley has something nasty in store for them.  Of course, the rank chocolates at the end was pretty hilarious, though it would have been more funny if Feely had actually eaten some of them.

Here’s a random question: what’s up with the butterfly on the cover of the book?  Do you remember anything about butterflies?

Caren: I think it referred to Nialla’s butterfly compact that Mad Meg stole, but I was surprised it didn’t have any real significance in the story.  I expected it to be a pivotal piece of the puzzle, but it wasn’t.  Unless I missed something!

Speaking of the cover, I have to say that Alan Bradley does come up with the most unusual and unforgettable titles.  Kind of a pain to write out, but pretty cool!  And all the references to art, literature, history, and the sciences — either he’s one very well-educated writer or he’s good at faking it!

Jenny:  I’m a fan whether or not he’s faking it.  This is good stuff, my friend.


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