“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.