I really enjoyed the first book in the Flavia de Luce series. Half the reason I read books in the first place is atmosphere. If you build me a world that’s fun or intriguing or exciting to hang out in, I will be very willing to forgive any missteps in your books, and if there aren’t really any, I will fucking love them. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag is a credible successor to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but it’s got some pacing issues that severely hampered my enjoyment at the beginning. The second half of the book is a lot of fun, but it was only my previous affection for the character and the world she lives in that kept me from becoming frustrated with the book.
Flavia is still an eleven year old genius, obsessed with chemistry (and poisons in particular). My favorite thing about her as a character is how Alan Bradley plays with the contradictions in her character. On the one hand, she’s bitingly intelligent, able to understand and make connections that the adults around simply can’t. On the other, she’s a child who doesn’t really feel the emotional weight of the events going on around her, until she’s faced with moments she can’t really deal with (like in the first book when her investigation put her life in danger, and in this one when faced with a mother’s grief, or the rage of another character I won’t name). She’s a child who puts herself in adult situations that she is often able to navigate more easily than the adults around her, mostly due to the innocuous nature of being an 11 year old girl — people are willing to let her in and tell her things they wouldn’t otherwise — but also because she doesn’t have established modes of thinking, everything is new to her. At the same time, so many other things go over her head, because for as smart and knowledgeable as she is, she’s still rather innocent.
In this one, Flavia finds herself in the middle of an investigation into the death of a famous puppeteer. Rupert Porson and his assistant, Nia (not sure of the spelling as I listened to it on audiobook) have traveled to town and arranged to put on a couple of shows for the local parish in exchange for their van being fixed. Why a famous puppeteer has come to such a small place as Bishop’s Lacey in the first place is part of the mystery. Rupert is a bit (okay, a huge) jackass, who clearly beats Nia, and who is also a womanizer, but he turns out to be a genius at his job. Too bad he gets murdered and stuff. Flavia finds herself unable to stop from investigating everyone and everything surrounding his death, which in turn delves up the mystery surrounding the death of a young boy five years earlier.
The mystery in this one wasn’t as interesting as Flavia herself, and Bradley takes entirely too long in the set-up. Rupert isn’t even murdered until almost half-way through, and waiting for him to kick the bucket was excruciating. I know Bradley was trying something a little different by having Flavia get to know the victim before he died (so that she would be uniquely placed to solve his murder), but it didn’t quite work out logistically as well as it did emotionally for me. Still an enjoyable read, though. I especially liked the audibook version (although Jane Entwistle does tend to overread some lines with too much glee that I thought should have been read in a more normal voice).
I am most interested in Flavia herself, and she’s the reason why I’m so excited to read the rest of the books in the series. I find her fascinating: her dead mother, the way her sisters treat her so horribly, and the way she misinterprets their treatment (another example of her being too emotionally immature to understand what’s really going on). I’ve heard others describe her as a sociopath in training, but I don’t think that’s right. It’s more like she’s emotionally damaged from losing her mother and her obsession with death has taken the form of poisons and murder investigations. She’s also a child, and children are kind of sociopaths anyway, until they learn that actions have consequences (something that usually has to be learned the hard way). Sure, she’s always trying to poison her sisters (not death poison, just you know, the uncomfortable kind), but I don’t see any difference in this behavior than the fact that when I was mad at her, I used to lick all of my sister’s silverware when I was setting the table, and never told her. (Melissa, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. But you did shitty stuff too. Don’t even lie.) Flavia just has a more sophisticated set of tools than the rest of us did at her age.
Anyway, rocky second book, but I’m in for the rest of the series.