• NZ Booklovers

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

Rarely does a writer pull off the trick of producing a winning book for adults which stars a child protagonist. Mark Haddon did so successfully in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Jonathan Safran Foer in the brilliant Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but more common are books written for children that are sufficiently clever and well-drawn to have cross-generational appeal, such as Tolkien and Rowling’s work, and much of Roald Dahl’s oeuvre.

All of which is just to say that when Alan Bradley made his writerly debut last year with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, featuring one Flavia de Luce as heroine, he was doing something quite audacious – producing a new kind of crime fiction for adults, replacing the customary grimness and gore with wit and the particular worldview of an extremely unusual 11-year-old.

‘Precocious’ does not begin to describe Flavia, who lives in the sleepy English hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey with her father and sisters and assorted housekeepers, gardeners and eccentric villagers. The year is 1950.

Flavia explores her passion for chemistry and the natural sciences in an abandoned Victorian laboratory on the de Luce property, Buckshaw. (Some experiments help her solve crimes; others are simply a means to torment her sisters, Ophelia and Daphne (‘Feely’ and ‘Daffy’), with whom she is permanently at war – the spiking of their food with unpleasant agents is a favourite pastime.)

The Sweetness opened with Flavia discovering a corpse in the cucumber patch at Buckshaw, the catalyst for an engaging yarn in which the youngest de Luce’s fearless detective work cleared her father’s name and pinpointed the real killer.

The Weed that String’s the Hangman’s Bag has the same formula that made the first book a bestseller. A travelling puppet show arrives in Bishop’s Lacey, and Flavia is quick to sense that not all is what it seems between the puppeteer, Rupert Porson, and his assistant, Nialla. She performs a lysozome test on Nialla’s handkerchief and detects a straightforward case of pregnancy. Shortly afterwards, an equipment failure during Rupert and Nialla’s performance of Jack and the Beanstalk in the village hall results in death, and Flavia, not taken in by suggestions of an accident, sets out to unmask the killer.

Perhaps it isn’t fair to compare the first Flavia de Luce book to the second, but The Weed is a weaker tale for not obeying, as The Sweetness did, some of the immutable rules of good crime fiction – chief among them being don’t faff around with the plotline. If the story hinges on a murder investigation, the unfortunate person needs to meet their Maker early on, not halfway through.

The unique wit and personality of Flavia shines as bright as ever – and she really is a stellar and singular creation, what with the misanthropic and mischievous goings-on in her brain. There were many moments that made me smile. An example?

Confronted with a corpse, Flavia reflects: “Was I frightened out of my wits? I’m afraid not . . . I had developed a fascination with death, with a particular emphasis on the chemistry of putrefaction. In fact, I had already begun making notes for a definitive work, which I would call De Luce on Decomposition . . . "

I enjoyed The Weed immensely for what it is, a diverting and rather original read, but to elevate Flavia to the heights she deserves and cement her place in the canon of detective fiction, Bradley needs to give her material that is as strong as her personality next time round. Which won’t be long in coming – flaviadeluce.com reveals that the next four books in the Flavia series are already lined up, titles and all.

This review was previously published on Coast.co.nz.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones

Published by Penguin Random House