The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley – Review

Book Jacket:

From Dagger Award–winning and internationally bestselling author Alan Bradley comes this utterly beguiling mystery starring one of fiction’s most remarkable sleuths: Flavia de Luce, a dangerously brilliant eleven-year-old with a passion for chemistry and a genius for solving murders. This time, Flavia finds herself untangling two deaths—separated by time but linked by the unlikeliest of threads.

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 Brontë 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?

You can read an excerpt here.


It is impossible to resist the quirky, unsinkable charm of Flavia de Luce, the eleven year old chemist du jour who finds murder absolutely fascinating. With her patented adolescent wiles, Flavia is the perfect blend of precocious, endearingly odd and innocently naive – she keeps a scrap-book of famous poisonings and dreams of learning the secrets of embalming fluid; she excels at sneaking into places she doesn’t belong (particularly those behind crime scene tape), and when her sister reads aloud from Madame Bovary, Flavia hasn’t the slightest idea what it means when the Madame “gives herself up” to Flaubert. Watching Flavia tear about on her trusty bicycle to delve into the mysteries of her small British village is sheer fun.

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple often proclaimed that everything she knew of murderers she learned living the small town life, and now thanks to Alan Bradley, we get to watch Miss Marple’s truism play out before our eyes. Very much in evidence are several staples of small town British stories – a Land Girl, Crazy Aunt, and former German POW, for starters – but Bradley manages to dance around the stereotypes and deliver quirky, flawed, and fascinating characters. From the Vicar’s terrifying wife, to the crazy homeless lady who lives in the woods, to the traveling puppeteer who happens to star in a BBC show, Bradley has populated his mystery with a colorful cast of suspects, all of whom have plenty of history (and secrets) for Flavia to delve into.

As this is the second Flavia de Luce novel, this time around I did start to notice a couple of Bradley’s marquee storytelling habits – he definitely enjoys inserting at least one lengthy reminiscence into his narrative, a fireside indulgence in historical storytelling (this time it was about World War II), and he also continues to delight in the war between Flavia and her sisters. As much as I enjoy Flavia’s clever, chemistry-based means of seeking revenge on her siblings, I really wanted this dynamic to grow, evolve, and be explored – instead, this book follows exactly the same pattern as book one in terms of family dynamics. I was hoping at least Flavia’s father would be more aware of Flavia, after all she did for him in the first book, or that the arrival of Flavia’s indomitable Aunt would shake things up some, but instead there were merely a few passage of Flavia’s Aunt telling off Flavia’s father, and one lovely scene where the Aunt sympathizes with Flavia, and that was it. Nothing changed at all, aside from Flavia seeming to feel her lonliness more acutely.

As much fun as it is to watch the three sisters’ mutual antipathy play out, there is so much more I want to know – why Flavia’s sisters hate her so much, and why Daffy, in particular, at the ripe old age of seventeen, still indulges in such petty cruelty. Are Daffy and Feely just rotters? Do they hate Flavia for being so much like her mother, or blame her for her mother’s death? Were they nice to Flavia when she was younger, or have they always been this way? I have no idea, but I’d very much like to find out.

So often in murder mystery franchises, things tend to get stuck in a rut, a successful formula reproduced ad infinitum. I really want more from this budding series – I want Flavia to turn twelve, I want Flavia’s father to DO SOMETHING – and I dearly hope this series avoids adhering too tightly too its own pattern.

In terms of plot, this book is a thoroughly well constructed mystery that deviously exploits the intimate, isolated nature of its village setting. I didn’t get ahead of the story at all, and I absolutely loved the unsettling interludes Flavia has with the full range of suspects – such deliciously odd moments, all with the menacing specter of a murderer lurking in the background.

And of course, it must be said that Flavia’s narrative interludes continue to be one of my favorite parts of this series. A taste:

“…and while the maestro prepares his enchanted strings, the Ladies’ Auxiliary of St. Tancred’s is pleased to present, for your musical entertainment, the Misses Puddock, Lavinia and Aurelia.”

Oh, Lord! Spare us! Please spare us!

We had been saved from having to listen to them during the matinee performance only because their St. Nicholas Tea Room kept them too busy to attend.

The Mises Puddock had a death grip on public events at St. Tancred’s parish hall. No matter if it was a tea put on by the Ladies’ League, a whist drive by the Altar Guild, a white elephant sale by the ladies’ Auxiliary, or a spring flower show by the Vestry Guild, the Misses Puddock would perform, winter or summer, rain or shine.

Miss Lavinia would seat herself at the upright piano, rummage in her string bag, and fish out at last a tattered piece of sheet music: “Napolean’s Last Charge.”

After an interminable wait – during which she would thrust her face forward until her nose was touching the music – she would sit back, her spine stiff as a poker, raise her hands above the keyboard, drop them, take a second squint at the music, and then tear into it like a grizzly bear clawing at a salmon in the Pathe newsreels.

When she was finished, her sister, Miss Aurelia, would take up her position, her white-gloved fingertips idly bruhing the dusty piano top, and warble (there’s no other word for what she did) “Bendemeer’s Stream”

Afterwards, the chairman would announce that the Vestry Guild had voted unanimously to present the Misses Puddock with an honorarium: “a purse of appreciation,” as he alwys put it.

And they’re off!

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag is a thoroughly entertaining cozy mystery that cements Flavia de Luce’s place among the very best of adolescent sleuths. Keep ’em coming, Alan Bradley – this is a series I hope to enjoy for a very, very long time.

Byrt Grade: A-

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Material Witness says:

There is much to enjoy here. A golden age style murder mystery which continuously dangles the answer to the story in front of the reader but never quite leaving it within reach. There is wit and comedy, clever, snappy writing and a fine heroine. In all this is good, clean sleuthing fun and Flavia’s reputation will continue to grow with it.

Teen Reads says:

Alan Bradley, an experienced children’s author, clearly has an ear for how to make Flavia’s voice both convincingly childlike and wickedly precocious. Flavia’s narration offers readers a humorous combination of genuine insights — often gleaned from her sophisticated chemical knowledge and her top-secret experiments — with a naïveté of which she is, of course, totally unaware. Accompanied by her trusty bicycle Gladys, Flavia is both utterly fearless and cannily sly, exploiting her own inconspicuousness to get information from virtually everyone.

Murder, Mystery & Mayhem says:

If you have been avoiding the traditional cozy genre try The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. Flavia is the snarky eleven year old we all secretly wanted to be and she is so much cooler than Nancy Drew.