Precocious 11-year-old chemist Flavia de Luce made her first appearance in Alan Bradley’s first novel about her, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and she’s back to solve another murder mystery in The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. This time, Flavia gets to meet a famous puppeteer who has a show on the BBC.
Rupert Porson comes through her little hamlet and ends up stuck there for a few days when his car breaks down, so he and his assistant, Nialla, decide to do a couple of puppet shows. Flavia isn’t terribly impressed by the well-known TV show aspect of it; her family doesn’t have a TV, and besides, she’s far more impressed by the beautiful poisons created by nature. But she is interested in the personality dynamics she sees at play with Rupert and Nia and the surprising interactions that pop up with some of her neighbors in Bishop’s Lacy. Then when Rupert turns up electrocuted during his second performance at the church, Flavia starts investigating in earnest: she just can’t help herself.
Flavia is a great character; she is smart and curious and a bit mischievous. She knows a lot about plenty of topics and is more interested in immersing herself in books on poisons — and testing them out in the lab — than in having “normal” friendships with other children her age. She is annoyed by her older sisters and finds them completely dull and unbearable. For their part, Daphne and Ophelia hate her right back; they’re always telling her that she was adopted or that their mother died years ago because she just couldn’t stand Flavia. Through it all, Bradley uses a perfectly light touch, making the characters likeable and real, with some funny quirks and unique qualities, without being obnoxious or unbelievable. Flavia is a girl one would enjoy having as a favorite niece — she could go on and on about her interests and exploits, leaving you shaking your head over her precociousness.
The murder mystery (along with a second entwined death from years before) is interesting enough in The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, but it’s Flavia de Luce who takes center stage in this whodunit.
Rated: Mild, for some mild language. Violence is pretty minimal.