The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag: A Flavia de Luce Mystery (book 2)
by Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press, 2010.
364 pages (hardback).
I am not sure you will read a better review of Alan Bradley’s The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag than Carl V.’s review over at Stainless Steel Droppings. As I don’t believe in flattery, you may know I am serious and follow the link. Then go and check this book out from the Library, or just purchase it along with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and send me copies as well.
What follows? Thinking aloud:
I was finished reading The Weed that Strings and was trying to come up with something potentially negative to say. I don’t try to search out weaknesses or have something unkind to say; plenty of times they are readily apparent. No, I was thinking about how much I’ve been raving of late. My pessimism surfaces when I find that I’ve read too many great works in a row, like three or four. What are the odds? my darkly tuned mind whispers.
I am trying to be objective about a book that I found to be an exceptionally well done Second Book in a Mystery Series. Bradley maintains all the charm of the First Book, carries off the voice of Flavia (the narrator/protagonist) without fail.
I suppose I could say that those who have not a speck of dark humor would care for Flavia. Or even those that doubt the devious capabilities of a nearly eleven-year-old girl…
Or it may be that The Weed that Strings tends to meander a bit. Not intentionally; things naturally get in the way—like sleep, for instance; or a delicious memory; or contemplation of the organic chemical properties of something or other; or happens into conversation with someone crossing her path.
Yet, does Bradley really meander all that much? While Bradley is writing a mystery novel, the mystery is secondary, an incidental vehicle in which to engage the reader further into the deviously clever machinations of Flavia’s mind. Perhaps better stated: Flavia is a mystery, and the murders she encounters are the secondary mystery, which is incidental.
However enthrallingly bizarre the opening event is that Bradley writes, both novels start with Flavia’s daily life. They both end with a “mundane” Flavia moment as well. Flavia happens to come upon a mystery in the in-between. Both mysteries are puzzling, but one might frustrate the other for the Reader—that is, if they are not taken in by Flavia. If you don’t find Flavia compelling the quite brilliant twists, the quirky characters, and amusing cultural references will not hold the reader. I do not contribute this observance to the mere fact that Flavia is our first person narrator. I contribute it to the potentially meandering nature of the novel.
Flavia is ever here and there on her bicycle Gladys. She is ever in a conversation, whether in person or eavesdropped. She is ever creeping about or contemplating something or other that may or may not pertain to the murder-mystery at hand. While you feel sure that somewhere in all of it, you will say, ‘of course’ when the mystery is solved at the end. Just the same, I wonder if perhaps some of the rest was potentially extraneous; even for the sake of characterization. And whether it matters?
Can an interaction be irrelevant if the story is about Flavia, who incidentally becomes a murder investigator? Is it, if it wildly entertaining?
Sean references Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy by Douglas Adams,“It’s all digressions.” I’m wondering about Jesse Ball’s The Way the Through Doors.
Must everything be salient?
I admire a tightly woven story. I just finished Room by Emma Donoghue and the cleverness in which every object and interaction is used and reused toward the progression of the story, which is both character and plot driven. I suppose a notable and personal observation regarding the two reading experiences is that I would like to sit in a pub with Bradley and let him regale me with Flavia stories all the day long, probable digressions and all.
After a few notes on my reading The Weed that Strings, I was reading Polishing Mudballs, a blog I follow daily, and Deanna was reviewing Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. In the review, she writes:
There is criticism that the book is too lengthy with far too many irrelevant details. In some ways, I agree, and did feel that maybe the book was a tad bit long, but mostly I disagree. I greatly appreciated reading about the various details of culture and countries. I truly believe that those details added the overall feeling, and understanding of the story.
Then there is Logan’s blog Rememorandum where he is exploring the question of “What Makes a Story?” and employs the word extraneous along the way.
Strange but wonderful coincidences.
I found The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag as wonderfully entertaining as The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, for all the same reasons as the “review” I wrote on it, and all the reasons Carl V. notes in his review.
A few asides with regards to The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag:
—How much consciously enters the creation of the 2nd book after the first?
The notable discussion on page 112 about being eleven (or even almost). A response to criticism regarding Flavia’s reliability—or Bradley’s capability in portraying a believable character?
“You are unreliable, Flavia,” [Father] 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 a pokes us in the tum with their fingers and make idiotic noises that sound like “boof-boof”—just the though 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.
Neither would an 11-year-old be underestimated. Much of the theme and to the good use of the Mystery, the underestimation of abilities and capabilities is at work in The Weed that Strings. [a female character] “had the highest IQ he’d ever seen in ‘the fairer sex,’ as he put it” 302. Equally treated are the estimations of the young, the non-Adonis, and the lunatic.
There is a thread in the novel, about the perils of children seeing things they shouldn’t: Robin, Jack and the Beanstock, and Flavia de Luce. The Weed that Strings is quite creepy and suspenseful.
I appreciate that Flavia is not negotiating the world of murder-mystery unscathed, despite her predilection for the macabre. Also, the continual resistance of the Constabulary to make an 11-year-old an honorary member (as so many child-detective, –spy, novels are want to do).
—I am noticing the continual references to the relationships between females.
It is a simple fact of nature that while most men can walk right pasta a weeping woman as if their eyes are blinkered and their ears stopped up with sand, no female can ever hear the sound of another in distress without rushing instantly to her aid. (8)
This sort of statement is found in both, more than once.
Is it the motherless child? A reminder that Flavia is a girl so as to not mistake more masculine gender attributes? In keeping with 1950s ideology?
The female mind doesn’t work that way.
Seen from the air, the male mind must look rather like the canals of Europe, with ideas being towed along well-worn towpaths by heavy-footed dray horses. there is never any doubt that they will, despite wind and weather, reach their destinations by following a simple series of connected lines.
But the female mind, even in my limited experience, seems more of a vast and teeming swamp, but a swamp that knows in an instant whenever a stranger—even miles away—has so much as dipped a single toe into her waters. People who talk about this phenomenon, most of whom know nothing whatsoever about it, call it “woman’s intuition.”
Although I had arrived at much the same conclusion as Dogger, it had been by a very different route. (308-9)
Haven’t figured out where I am putting above section in my mind. Explaining the differentiations in why the story takes the form it does? Does a book need to explain itself?
—In this second book, there is a map of Bishop’s Lacy and Environs in the front. Helpful, although Bradley is quite good with directions.
—Lastly, the opening lines: “I was lying dead in the churchyard. An hour had crept by since the mourners had said their sad farewells.” Marvelous. I am very much looking forward to Bradley’s next installment in the Flavia de Luce Mysteries, A Red Herring without Mustard (2011).
*Bovril, noun [mass noun] trademark, a concentrated essence of beef diluted with hot water to make a drink. (Oxford English Dictionary)
Stainless Steel Droppings review, the link again.