The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's BagI loved ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie;’ I was beguiled by its eleven year-old heroine, Flavia de Luce; and yet I was strangely reluctant to pick up this sequel.

It wasn’t that I doubted Flavia, who is a real gem of a character, it was that I wondered if Alan Bradley could pull off his wonderful blend of Christie, Mitford and Blyton again.

He could! I was engrossed from the first scene, of Flavia dramatising her own funeral in the churchyard, to the final grand denouement.

Flavia was distracted from her dramatics by the sound of a woman weeping. She was Nialla, the assistant of television puppeteer Rupert Porson, whose van had broken down.  Flavia, always curious and always in search of adventure, took it upon herself to offer help. And after that help has been found the puppeteer is inveigled into putting on a show in the village hall.

It was a wonderful spectacle – especially the murder!

Naturally Flavia takes it upon herself to investigate, and a complex plot begins to unravel.

It took in the vicar and his wife, a mad woman in the woods, a former prisoner of war who had stayed on, the unexplained death of a small boy some years before, and one or two long-buried secrets.

This was a dark tale, but it had plenty of colour, a good dash of very well judged humour, a great deal of incident, and some very tight plotting.

That plot did rather rely on characters being a little too ready to talk, and on one or two deductions that had little in the way of logical underpinning. I noticed but I wasn’t too concerned, and I didn’t think too much about what the answers might be, because I was always caught in the moment by some very fine storytelling.

It was lovely to meet Flavia’s family again. She had two sisters, one still had her nose permanently in a book and the other was still focused on her mirror, though she was a little distracted since she had found her first young gentleman admirer. They both tormented Flavia and she reciprocated using all of the resources of her chemistry laboratory. Her father was oblivious, locked in his study with his stamp albums. And a visiting aunt would upset the apple-cart.

Dogger, Flavia’s father’s manservant, was a wonderful foil for her whenever he was called upon; and Mrs Mullet, the cook, did a grand job too, with a wonderful knowledge of village affairs and many words of wisdom.

I should also mention Bertha, Flavia’s trusty bicycle.

And the village of Bishops Lacey had much to offer too.

It was all wonderfully familiar, and it was lovely to see a little evolution and much promise for the future.

Flavia held everything together magnificently. She’s bright, she’s funny, and though she’s young for her years in some ways and ridiculously mature in others, the psychology worked. Her home, her family, her situation made her what she was. She’s grown up a little, learnt lessons from her adventures, but she’s still endearing and infuriating in pretty much equal parts.

Her voice rings true and I still love her – though I can understand why some don’t.

And now I’m not at all reluctant – in fact I’m eager – to pick up the next book in the series.

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