Friday, May 24, 2013

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

It's taken me a long time to get my hands on The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, the second installment in the Flavia de Luce mysteries.  I did not  enjoy it as much as Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, probably because Flavia's bitter feud with her sisters no longer seems as amusing.

What struck me most this time was the brokenness of the various characters: Rupert the womanizer, Mad Meg, pregnant and unwed Nialla, the hard-hearted minister's wife, the German ex-POW, and even Flavia's own motherless family.  Dogger, her father's butler/gardener/jack-of-all-trades is a man who experienced such trauma during WWII that he fades in and out of reality.  What I appreciate about him is that his love for the de Luce family is what often calls him back from the depths.  Not only is he loyal and smart, he is a protector for Flavia whose own father hides from the world by being absorbed in his stamp collection.

In this book a traveling puppeteer mysteriously dies and Flavia is, again, one step ahead of Inspector Hewitt in solving the crime. But what kept me reading more than the storyline was Bradley's good writing and the many historic/literary references. He drops names like Swiss scientist Piccard, Beethoven, the Bront√ęs, illustrator Arthur Rackham, Sydney Carton, Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Kingsley, Shakespeare, Madame Bovary, and even my dear Anthony Trollope.  Too much fun!

Flavia continues her fascination with poisonous substances in this second novel. She says of herself:

Brains and morals have nothing to do with one another.  Take myself, for instance: I am often thought of as being remarkably bright, and yet my brains, more often than not, are busily devising new and interesting ways of bringing my enemies to sudden, gagging, writhing, agonizing death. 

And later: There's something about pottering with poisons that clarifies the mind.  When the slightest slip of the hand could prove fatal, one's attention is forced to focus like a burning-glass upon the experiment, and it is then that the answers to half-formed questions so often come swarming to mind as readily as bees coming to the hive.

If you like a good, clean, well-written mystery, this one's for you.


Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

I loved (LOVED) the first Flavian de Luce mystery, but as is usual with series fiction, I've gone no further. Your review whets my appetite for more. Thanks!

Carol in Oregon said...

I read these out of order, but I still think the first one is the finest.

I wouldn't recommend reading them all in a row. The sister feuds would grate and, dare I say it, even Flavia would get stale.

But in each book, Flavia has described something, e.g. trying to call to mind a detail you can't remember, that resonates with me.

And I think there is enough complexity that these would easily stand re-reads.

I *always* enjoy your reviews, Hope.