The monkey remembers a simpler time, when all you needed to solve a mystery was a zest for crime-solving, three good friends, and maybe a talking dog.
And a van. Always need a good van.
The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
by Alan Bradley (2010)
If one were to closely follow the tenets of Agatha Christie mysteries, one would be wise to stay as far away from quaint English townships as possible. The murder rate of such hamlets, as described by Christie and her ilk, must rank in the highest percentile of crime statistics.
The town of Bishop’s Lacey is no different, having quite an off-centre proportion of strange criminal conundrums for such a tiny municipality. For balance, all such villages must also be blessed with a detective of unusual cunning and resourcefulness, ideally a local eccentric with a penchant for amateur sleuthing.
Flavia de Luce is just such an investigator, and Toronto-born author Alan Bradley revels in her peculiarities. Introduced in 2009’s surprise hit The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Flavia is a self-possessed eleven-year-old girl with a fondness for chemistry and a yearning to make sense of her world, and in Bradley’s hands she is the spiritual lovechild of Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple.
At the start of Bradley’s second de Luce mystery, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, Flavia finds herself still living in a large old house with her two detestable sisters and her philatelist father. Flavia is proceeding with her investigations into chemistry, already “making notes for a definitive work [called] De Luce on Decomposition, in which I would outline, step by step, the process of human cadaveric decay.”
When Flavia happens upon an enigmatic woman weeping in a graveyard, she takes it upon herself to intervene. The young snoop quickly finds herself caught up in a mystery involving marionettes, the past death of a local child, and one decidedly dead BBC children’s personality.
Flavia is a strikingly enjoyable heroine, precocious, preternaturally intelligent to a fault, and not giving “a frog’s fundament” for anyone who crosses her. Her intellect crosses the border into the implausible, but such a leap is far easier with such an engaging narrator, at ease with explaining the mechanics of human decay as she is espousing that Beethoven, while “a very great musician, and a wizard composer of symphonies…was quite often a dismal failure when it came to ending them.”
As in classic Christie novels, the mystery forms only half of the narrative. The other half is the town itself and its many varied characters, and Bradley heaps scads of idiosyncratic personalities with such glorious monikers as “Mad Meg,” “Dogger,” and “Mutt Wilmott” into an already convoluted plotline.
If there is any real shortcoming to The Weed That Strings, it is that Flavia has shown precious little growth as a character since her introduction. While continuity of character is another staple of such anachronistic entertainments (did Miss Marple ever evolve beyond her knitting and gardening pursuits?), one hopes that the few glimpses allowed into Flavia’s past, especially concerning her long-deceased mother Harriet, will eventually allow her some avenue into maturity in further stories.
Otherwise, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag is a surfeit of pleasures, an old-fashioned puzzler of red herrings, left turns, and sharp twists. It should easily please Bradley’s fans, and newcomers will find themselves happily falling for Flavia’s exploits.
VERDICT: MONKEY LIKES
Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press (expurgated version), March 13, 2010.