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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What I'm Reading: The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag: A Flavia de Luce Mystery (Flavia De Luce Mysteries)Last year I couldn't stop raving about Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie which introduced the world to the fabulous Flavia de Luce, an 11-year-old, poisons loving sleuth in 1950s rural England.

I originally wrote about Flavia in this post, and over on the Browser's Corner I have written this shelf talker about the book:
 In this fresh and intelligent cozy, readers are swept back in time to rural England in 1950. Flavia de Luce, an 11 year-old aspiring chemist with an interest in poisons, finds a man lying in her garden, taking his last breaths. Readers will root for Flavia, who is just old enough to look out for herself but has not yet lost her adventurous spirit, as she investigates this mysterious death and ends up entangled in a decades old rare stamp smuggling ring.
[Oh, and as I promised to reveal in last week, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was the book I bought for the moms for Mother's Day this year.]

So it should come as no surprise that I was excited to read the next Flavia de Luce mystery which came out last month, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag. And, I am happy to report that I enjoyed the second installment as much, if not more than the first.

It is only a few months later and Flavia still lives with her Dad and two sisters in a dilapidated manor house.  She meets a BBC puppeteer and his assistant who have broken down near the churchyard. Turns out the puppeteer has been here before, but when he is murdered, Flavia needs to reconstruct how and why someone would kill him, digging into the death of a young boy a few years before in the process. The two are tied together by weed and a hanging, but how? Read it for yourself to find out.

A patron and I were talking about the novel and we both agreed that although the appeal of discovering and slowly falling in love with Flavia could not be replicated in this second installment, we did appreciate that Bradley improved in his storytelling here. In the first book, Bradley seemed to have trouble resolving the mystery and had to put Flavia in mortal danger in order to wrap things up. Here Flavia is never in danger, yet she still solves the case. I think that is a sign of Bradley's maturity. The story was just as compelling without me having to worry about Flavia surviving.

It is also worth remembering that Bradley's series is a cozy. Why does this matter? Because a cozy is more about the characters and the frame (setting, time period, chemistry details, etc...) than the mystery. Cozies are appealing without the mystery; the mystery is simply a plot device to let the reader enter a world full of interesting characters and background details. The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag is a perfect example of this.

Three Words That Describe This Book: cozy mystery, original, captivating

Readalikes: Following I have re-posted the suggestions I first made for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but first here are a few more new suggestions.

As I mentioned here, another new series with a great sleuth and an interesting frame follows Tarquin Hall's Indian PI Vish Puri.  Beginning with The Case of the Missing Servant, Puri, the owner of Delhi's Most Private Investigators Ltd., is a detective in the classic sense of Sherlock Holmes, but he uses very modern technology to solve this complicated case. I loved how the book was modern and old fashioned, all at the same time, much like the city of Delhi and the country of India itself is portrayed.  Click here for my full review of Hall's novel. The next installment of the Puri mysteries is due out in early June.

Besides the suggestions below, I would also suggest the Maisie Dobbs Mysteries by Jacqueline Winspear and the Spellman mysteries by Lisa Lutz (reviews here).

Suggestions from the first time I read a Flavia book (June 2009):
Other cozy mysteries with intriguing and original narrators that may appeal to readers of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie are the mysteries of Bradley's fellow Canadian Louise Penny. Her Three Pines mystery series is set in a small Quebec village. The first is Still Life.
If you liked the original voice and unique setting in Bradley's novel as well as the eccentric characters, you should also try Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. When I was reading Flavia's story I realized that I hadn't been so taken in by both a narrator and a setting since I had first read Precious Ramotswe's tale of solving problems in Botswana.
For more cozy reading suggestions, visit the Cozy Library.

A few reviews also mentioned how Flavia is reminiscent of Harriet the Spy.

Those who liked this book but want a little more sarcasm (this book has none), I would suggest Confessions of a Teen Sleuth by Chelsea Cain, which is the fictional biography of Nancy Drew.

In terms of nonfiction, readers may want to try these books about stamp collecting, poisons/chemistry, and rural England in the 1950s.

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