CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 3 . . . . September 16, 2011
The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. (Flavia de Luce, #2).
Toronto, ON: Anchor Canada/Random House of Canada, 2010.
347 pp., pbk., $19.95.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
I was lying dead in the churchyard. An hour had crept by since the mourners had said their last sad farewells.
At twelve o’clock, just at the time we should otherwise have been sitting down to lunch, there had been the departure from Buckshaw: my polished rosewood coffin being brought out of the drawing room, carried slowly down the broad stone steps to the driveway, and slid with heartbreaking ease into the open door of the waiting hearse, crushing beneath it a little bouquet of wildflowers that had been lad gently inside by one of the grieving villagers....
And so they had brought me to the village of Bishop’s Lacey, passing somberly through the same green lanes and dusty hedgerows I had bicycled every day when I was alive.
At the heaped-up churchyard of St. Tancred’s, they had taken me gently from the hearse and borne me at a snail’s pace up the path beneath the limes. Here, they had put me down for a moment in the new-mown grass.
Then had come the service at the gaping grave, and there had been a note of genuine grief in the voice of the vicar as he pronounced the traditional words.... This was the end of the road for poor Flavia....
There was a sudden clatter of wings: a noise that echoed loudly from the stone wall of the church, amplified to an alarming volume by a half acre of stained glass and the learning gravestones that hemmed me in. I froze....
Jackdaws never learn. No matter how many times I played this trick they always, sooner or later, came flapping down from the tower to investigate. To the primeval mind of a jackdaw, any body horizontal in a churchyard could have only one meaning: food.
As I had done a dozen times before, I leapt to my feet and flung the stone that was concealed in my curled fingers. I missed – but then I nearly always did. (Pp. 3-7)
Playing dead in the churchyard – an opportunity for Flavia deLuce’s always-lively imagination to take flight. It’s also a hint that The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag might be a darker novel, than its predecessor, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Returning home to Buckshaw (the de Luce family home) via the cemetery, Flavia hears “someone . . . having a good old-fashioned cry, of the knock-“em-down-drag”em-out variety” (p. 8). Who is this red-haired woman, and why is she in such distress? And, what, besides the break-down of their van, brings Nialla (the red-head) and her companion, Rupert Porson (creative force behind Porson’s Puppets, of the BBC children’s television show, The Magic Kingdom) to the quiet village of Bishop’s Lacey?
Stuck in the village while their van is being repaired, in return for assistance from the local mechanic, Rupert and Nialla set up in the local parish hall for a marionette performance of the classic fairy-tale Jack and the Beanstalk. Despite his many shortcomings as a human being (a drug habit, serial infidelity, and abuse of his partners, to name but three), Rupert Porson is a master of his art. In the guise of Mother Goose, Nialla narrates the story of Jack, and the audience is spellbound. Watching the rehearsal, Flavia, perhaps the most skeptical 11-year-old in fiction, states that “he held us captive in the palm of his hand from beginning to end, as if he were the giant, and all of us were Jack. He made us laugh and he made us cry, and sometimes both at the same time. I had never seen anything like it.” (P. 129). But, on the night of the actual performance, the show ends, not just with the death of the giant, Galligantus, but also with the death of Rupert Porson.
Of course, Flavia soon becomes involved in solving the mystery of “who killed Rupert Porson?” But, for someone with a scientific mind, one question inevitably spawns another, and, as Flavia tries to find out both “who” and “why”, she learns more about the people of Bishop’s Lacey than an 11-year-old might want to know. Is it Mad Meg, a crazed local indigent (but talented artist) whose outburst at the puppet show reminds the shocked audience of the sad story of Robin Ingleby? After their five-year-old son is found hanging in Gibbet Wood, adjacent to their farm, Robin’s parents, Grace and Gordon, are emotionally crippled by the tragedy. How are they connected with Rupert Porson? Why is Gordon growing cannabis on his farm? (yes, marijuana! A grow-op in a sleepy little English village, in the year 1950!) Is Dieter Schranz, the strikingly handsome German prisoner of war, dedicated Anglophile, now working on the Ingleby farm (and courting Flavia’s older sister, Ophelia), a possible suspect? The list of murder suspects continues to grow.
And in Flavia’s own family, unanswered questions concern her. What’s happening with the family finances? Upon leaving Buckshaw to return to London, Flavia’s Aunt Felicity tells the girls’ father that “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put your accounts together again.. . . There’s nothing for it now but to sell those ridiculous postage stamps.” (P. 70) Why are Flavia’s two older sisters once again claiming that she was adopted and telling her that she has been voted “out of the family”? (p. 259) And there is still the unresolved mystery of the death of her mother, Harriet, the blithe-spirited woman, who Flavia resembles the most of all of the three daughters.
Well, this is a mystery story, so I’m not going to tell who did it. That would just ruin the reading experience, and this is a book definitely worth reading. Alan Bradley provides enough “back story” such that readers can enjoy The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag as a “stand-alone”, although I think that it works better if read as a sequel to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Like its predecessor, this is a book for capable female readers (the interaction between Flavia and her sisters has particular resonance for girls, and I think that guys just won’t get it), and although the target audience is probably the upper grades of middle school, this is a book that would be enjoyed by older readers – at over 300 pages, this is not a quick read, and the cover art wisely is rather sophisticated for a work of juvenile fiction. As well, this book edges into some “adult” territory: the dialogue contains a few minor profanities (although you’ll hear worse on the playground in any middle school), Nialla is pregnant with Rupert’s child, and at one point, after hearing rumors of possible romance involving Dieter and two local women, Flavia asks Dogger, the family’s faithful man-about-all-jobs at Buckshaw, “what does an affair entail, precisely?” (P. 269) One thing s certain: this is a story a bit more complex than The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.
As always, Flavia continues her investigations in her home chemistry lab, and the book’s final pages conclude with her undertaking “damage control” as a result of one of her retaliatory pranks against her mean sisters. Temporarily banished to her room, she awaits her next opportunity to employ her remarkable powers of logical deduction. And, readers are tantalized by the inclusion of the first chapter of Flavia’s next adventure, A Red Herring without Mustard.
Joanne Peters, a retired high school teacher-librarian, resides in Winnipeg, MB.
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