Precocious 11-year-old Flavia de Luce returns to solve another murder in Alan Bradley’s The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. Not long after her adventure in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Flavia encounters a pair of famous puppeteers who star in a popular show on the BBC, though without having a TV, Flavia doesn’t recognize Rupert or his Porson’s Puppets. With a broken-down van, the puppeteers hold a show in the hall of the church to raise funds for repairs. Flavia, always fascinated by how things work, even if those things don’t happen to be poisons, hangs around to learn about the operation of the marionettes.
At the puppet show, the audience gasps to see that the puppet playing the role of Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk” has a face identical to that of a little boy found hanging from the old gallows in the woods five years earlier. Then, just as the show climaxes, and the giant is ready to fall from the clouds, Rupert, the puppeteer, falls dead from the top of the stage instead. Thus begins a journey to unravel the myriad strands of thread that tie the murder of the puppeteer and the death of the young boy, Robin.
Flavia continues as the remarkably intelligent 11-year-old whom we met in the prior book, a woman in mind but still a child in maturity. Being but a girl, Flavia has the ability to listen in unnoticed to others’ conversations and to come across as unthreatening while getting people to open up about their lives to her. In particular, Flavia gets information from “Mad Meg,” who lives wild deep in the forest, and the mother of the dead boy, Robin, who seemed to lose her sanity at the loss of her son. Flavia’s love of chemistry is a fun addition to this book, and she uses it both to help solve the crime and to play pranks on her sisters.
This book deals further with Flavia’s family life and their concerns that financial problems may cause them to lose their home. You can also sense the conflict she faces as the daughter of a man who scarcely notices his children and the younger sister of two girls who torment her. The setting of the English countryside in 1950 shows a slower pace of life, and Bradley’s’s choice of puppetry to frame the plot highlights the sense of a different place and time while holding a lot of interest.
Jane Entwistle returns to perform the narration of The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. She does a convincing job of reading the voice of Flavia, especially with the immature asides bragging about her own genius.
The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag is a truly delightful book. The characters throughout come to life, each having unique distinctions. The plot contains many twists and turns that make the novel fully enjoyable. I highly recommend this and give it five stars!
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