Books: The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag

I enjoyed the previous Flavia DeLuce book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag is even better. The mysteries (again, a sudden death, probably a murder, and a possible connection to another death a long time ago) are well-crafted. The circumstances surrounding the deaths, as well as the characters and possible motives involved, are quite believable – whereas those in the first book required more “suspension of disbelief” in my opinion

One reader review at amazon.com finds it incongruous that Flavia would know how to test for pregnancy and for marijuana in her chemistry lab, yet not know what it meant to have an affair. If the story took place today, such a criticism would be valid, but I don’t have any trouble believing that a girl growing up in 1950’s England, apparently self-taught (there is no mention of either school or tutoring), would have that particular area of ignorance.What little knowledge of affairs she does have comes from novels, and writers did not go into details about the sex act as they often do today.

New characters add new dimensions and depth to the story. In particular, Flavia learns more about her mother, who died when Flavia was a baby. Aunt Felicity, who initially seems to be just the stereotypical unpleasant relative, turns out to have a side to her that even Flavia appreciates. We also meet the vicar’s wife, an odd local character known as Mad Meg, and a woman driven nearly mad with grief over having lost her only son when he was five years old.

Perhaps in part it’s because I’m a woman, and those are female characters. There is also a new male character, a German POW shot down during the war, who turns out to be an Anglophile who is more than happy to continue living in England. But I have to admit that while his story is interesting, it does not seem integral to the story. Most of the reader reviews at amazon.com seem to be written by women, though I don’t know if that means more women read these books (quite likely) or just that more women write reviews.

Flavia herself has some interesting comments on differences between how males and females think.

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.

I’m not sure how realistic it is to put such insights in the mouth of an eleven-year-old girl, but it is an interesting and perhaps apt analogy. (It reminds me of the title of a book about men and women, Men Are Like Waffles–Women Are Like Spaghetti. I have not read it, but I have read other books that make similar points.)

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