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

January 25, 2011

7. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley (2010)
The Buckshaw Chronicles, Book 2

Read my review of book:
1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Length: 366 pages
Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction

Started: 12 January 2011
Finished: 13 January 2011

Where did it come from? The library booksale.
Why do I have it? I really enjoyed the first Flavia de Luce book.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 18 December 2010.

Are a bike and a
chemistry set enough to
stop a murderer?

Summary: Flavia de Luce is an accomplished chemist (particularly interested in poisons), a dab hand at solving murders, and also eleven years old. Her tiny post-WWII British hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey hardly seems a likely setting for murder, but when a famous puppetteer – who is stuck in town with a broken-down van – dies horribly in the middle of a performance, Flavia’s on the case. She’s convinced that it’s murder, and despite repeated warnings from the police and other grown-ups to stay out of things, she’s determined to get to the bottom of it. As she investigates, she can’t help but be struck by the number of ties to another local death – a tragic accident several years previously, involving a young boy – but how can Flavia hope to prove it, armed with nothing but her great-uncle’s chemistry set and her trusty bicycle Gladys?

Review: I picked up this book while I was in the middle of a long streak of “just-okay”-to-“not-so-good” books, a streak that had all of the signs of turning into a reading slump. I wanted something that I could rely on to be good; something with compelling characters and an interesting story, something that didn’t take itself too seriously and that I would actually be excited about reading. Since I thought Bradley’s first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, was all of those things, I pulled The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag off the stack… and sure enough, it didn’t disappoint. Compelling, absorbing, and funny, I tore through this book, and it promptly kicked my incipient reading slump right in the pants.

There were a few things about this book that I would have changed if I could, however. It’s a bit of a slow starter, with a lot of build-up: the murder that Flavia is investigating doesn’t happen until almost exactly the half-way point. I find Flavia and her adventures interesting enough that I didn’t really mind, but if you’re anxious to get to the murder mystery, the slow beginning might seem like stalling or filler. This book also didn’t have quite the bang-up finish I was expecting; the solution to the mystery and its denouement is… quieter, maybe?… than in Bradley’s first book. Actually, the whole book’s a little bit quieter; Flavia’s also not ever in any danger of anything more than a scolding, while in the first book she spends a lot more time interacting with (and getting yelled at by) the police and other authority figures.

The quietness of this book did allow for a little bit more introspective character development. Flavia’s brilliant, of course, but she’s also eleven, and while the first book had more of the sassy sides of being eleven – bike-riding and sibling-tormenting – this book gives us a little bit more of the anguish of being eleven – grown-ups that don’t believe you, siblings that hate you, etc.

“You are unreliable, Flavia,” he said. “Utterly unreliable.”

Of course I was! It was one of the things I loved most about myself.

Eleven-year-olds are supposed to be unreliable. We’re past the age of being poppets: the age where people bend over and poke us in the tum with their fingers and make idiotic noises that sound like “boof-boof” – just the thought of which is enough to make me bring up my Bovril. And yet we’re still not at the age where anyone ever mistakes us for a grown-up. The fact is, we’re invisible – except when we choose not to be. –p. 112

Overall, both sides of the coin combine to make Flavia a fantastic narrator, and I’m now eagerly looking forward to her next adventure. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: While this is technically a sequel, it could easily be read independently – the plots are unconnected, and there’s sufficient introduction of the overlapping characters that the books can stand alone. But both of them are great, and should be read by people who like cozy mysteries, sassy-yet-charming narrators, and kid geniuses.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Amy Reads, Becky’s Book Review, Beth’s Book Nook Blog, Chasing Bawa, Coffee Stained Pages, Lesa’s Book Critiques, Monniblog, Necromancy Never Pays, Notes of Life, Savidge Reads, Stainless Steel Droppings, What Kate’s Reading
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: I was lying dead in the churchyard.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 12: ““Last week, the hectograph sheets for the parish bulletin, the week before, a brass doorknob from the vestry.”” – a process for making copies of a letter, memorandum, etc., from a prepared gelatin surface to which the original writing has been transferred.
  • p. 23: “…Thomas Neill Cream, Hawley Harvey Crippen, and George Chapman (remarkable, isn’t it, that so many of the great poisoners’ names begin with the letter C?), who with strychnine, hyoscine, and antimony respectively, sent a veritable army of wives and other women marching to their graves…” – scopolamine, a colorless, syrupy, water-soluble alkaloid, C 1 7 H 2 1 NO 4 , obtained from certain plants of the nightshade family, used chiefly as a sedative and mydriatic and to alleviate the symptoms of motion sickness.
  • p. 31: “It was after all Cynthia, with her rodent features, who had once caught me teetering tiptoe on the altar of St. Tancred’s using one of Father’s straight razors to scrape a sample of blue zafre from a medieval stained-glass window.” – an artificial mixture, resembling smalt, containing cobalt oxide and, usually, silica, used to produce a blue color in glass and in ceramic glazes.
  • p. 88: “In spite of the heat, she was wearing a long, light-colored motoring coat and a great solar topee, which was tied under her chin with a broad blue ribbon.” – a lightweight helmet or sun hat made from the pith of the sola plant.
  • p. 251: “I was sure of it, for there on the right was the dark rectangular mark where the box had reposed since horse-drawn charabancs had rumbled past it in the high street.” – a large bus used on sightseeing tours, esp. one with open sides and no center aisle.

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2011 8:08 am

    You are quite right when you describe this as a more quiet novel, with more emphasis on Flavia and less on the mystery. And, like you, I really enjoyed that aspect of the story, especially as a companion to the first book. These books certainly aren’t the first mysteries where the mystery plays second, or third, fiddle to the main character, but it is one of the main things I like about them. The mysteries are fun, but Flavia herself is much more so. I like that there was enough of a difference between the two that you can see that Bradley isn’t just plugging story elements into a set outline. I’m looking forward to the next book as well…and its only a few weeks away!

    • January 26, 2011 10:31 am

      Carl – I knew the third one was in progress, but I had no idea it was coming out so soon! Bradley’s really been productive, huh?

  2. January 25, 2011 8:10 am

    Oh, and if you haven’t done so yet, I’m having a giveaway for Among Others, by Jo Walton. If you are looking for another good book with a young protagonist, this is one you should add to your list. Just sign up in the comments for that review.

  3. drbethnolan permalink
    January 25, 2011 9:32 am

    I loved his first Flavia book — this one I found okay. I look forward to the next one!!

    My review:

    -Beth :)

  4. January 25, 2011 3:32 pm

    I enjoyed the first Flavia novel but haven’ t felt compelled to pick this one up for some reason. After your review, I just may have to look for it.

    • January 26, 2011 10:33 am

      bermudaonion – There’s certainly no cliffhanger or anything to make one pick up the sequel immediately; I waited until I was in the right mood for the mood of the book.

  5. January 25, 2011 9:42 pm

    I’m the same as bermudaonion — I liked the first Bradley book but haven’t yet bothered to pick up the second one. I’m wondering if I would find the slow start difficult. I like Flavia, but I also like my books to get to the point.

    • January 26, 2011 10:35 am

      Jenny – Calling it a slow start is maybe not entirely accurate; I certainly didn’t notice it dragging or anything, and I was really surprised to realize that when we got to the murder, we were already at the halfway point.

  6. January 25, 2011 10:00 pm

    ok, you have convinced me to try this author! I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I like the idea of Flavia, and certainly she and her family sound interesting (in a gothic way). Yes, I think I will give these a try, at the very least so I know what everyone is talking about! Excellent review, too, by the way.

    • January 26, 2011 10:36 am

      Susan – Hooray! These books are good fun, and are the sort that can manage to put me in a good mood. I hope you like them!

  7. January 25, 2011 10:45 pm

    I am looking forward to reading this book at some point this year. I was just worried it wouldn’t work very well right after the first book…

    • January 26, 2011 10:36 am

      Kailana – I think spacing them out is a good idea, that way you can save the second for when you’re in the mood for a reading pick-me-up.

  8. January 27, 2011 9:23 pm

    Flavia is one of my all-time favorite characters. I’m going to have to read this one for sure. I listened to the audiobook of “sweetness” and it was really entertaining. Kept me in stitches!

    Great review!

    • January 28, 2011 9:31 am

      Annette – Who reads the audiobooks? Picking an appropriate narrator for an adult book with an 11-year-old protagonist has to be a tricky matter.

  9. January 29, 2011 1:29 pm

    I read this last year having not previous read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and I loved it (though got a bit confused about the family – see my review at ).

    I have yet to read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, although I hope to soon, and I can’t wait for the next book, A Red Herring Without Mustard.

    • January 31, 2011 9:34 am

      Nikki-ann – I had thought that things were well-enough explained to be able to read the two books independently, but in retrospect, that’s easy to say when I’ve already read the first book! You’re right that the relationship between Flavia and her family is not quite as much at the forefront of this second book as it was in the first.

  10. January 31, 2011 12:43 am

    I can’t believe that I haven’t even heard of this author. The book looks intriguing… especially since I just read a wonderful WW II/historical fiction titled, “The Scorpion’s Bite” by Aileen G. Baron, which is the third book in the Lily Sampson series. I am sort of in the mood to read similar books just like it. I will definitely be checking these books out. So glad that I stumbled across your site!

    • January 31, 2011 9:36 am

      Becky – Bradley’s pretty new on the literary scene, I think; The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was only published in 2009. They’re wonderful books, though, and I think you’d really like them – I hope you get the chance to check them out!

  11. January 31, 2011 6:38 pm

    Well I can’t wait to check them out. They look really good!

  12. February 4, 2011 4:17 pm

    I read Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie a few months ago and fell in love but have since forgotten about this one! I just got a shiny Half Price Books coupon yesterday so maybe I’ll see if my local store as a copy. I’ll look forward to the quietness of this book–but also the kick in the pants for reading slumps! ;)


  1. Book Review – The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag: A Flavia de Luce Mystery by Alan Bradley « Randomize ME

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