Synopses & Reviews
Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce didn’t intend to investigate another murder — but then, Rupert Porson didn’t intend to die. When the master puppeteer’s van breaks down in the village of Bishop’s Lacey, Flavia is front and centre to help Rupert and his charming assistant, Nialla, put together a performance in the local church to help pay the repair bill. But even as the newcomers set up camp and set the stage for Jack and the Beanstalk
, there are signs that something just isn’t right: Nialla’s strange bruises and solitary cries in the churchyard, Rupert’s unexplained disappearances and a violent argument with his BBC producer, the disturbing atmosphere at Culverhouse Farm, and the peculiar goings-on in nearby Gibbet Wood — where young Robin Ingleby was found hanging just five years before.
It’s enough to set Flavia’s detective instincts tingling and her chemistry lab humming. What are Rupert and Nialla trying to hide? Why are Grace and Gordon Ingleby, Robin’s still-grieving parents, acting so strangely? And what does Mad Meg mean when she says the Devil has come back to Gibbet Wood? Then it’s showtime for Porson’s Puppets at St. Tancred’s — but as Nialla plays Mother Goose, Rupert’s goose gets cooked as the victim of an electrocution that is too perfectly planned to be an accident. Someone had set the stage for murder.
Putting down her sister-punishing experiments and picking up her trusty bicycle, Gladys, Flavia uncovers long-buried secrets of Bishop’s Lacey, the seemingly idyllic village that is nevertheless home to a madwoman living in its woods, a prisoner-of-war with a soft spot for the English countryside, and two childless parents with a devastating secret. While the local police do their best to keep up with Flavia in solving Rupert’s murder, his killer may pull Flavia in way over her head, to a startling discovery that reveals the chemical composition of vengeance.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Alan Bradley was born in Toronto and grew up in Cobourg, Ontario. With an education in electronic engineering, Alan worked at numerous radio and television stations in Ontario, and at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University) in Toronto, before becoming Director of Television Engineering in the media centre at the University of Saskatchewan, where he worked for twenty-five years before taking early retirement in 1994.
Bradley was the first President of the Saskatoon Writers, and a founding member of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. His children’s stories were published in The Canadian Children’s Annual and his short story “Meet Miss Mullen” was the first recipient of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild Award for Children’s Literature.
For a number of years, Alan regularly taught scriptwriting and television production courses at the University of Saskatchewan. His fiction has been published in literary journals and he has given many public readings in schools and galleries. His short stories have been broadcast by CBC Radio, and his lifestyle and humour pieces have appeared in The Globe and Mail and The National Post.
Alan Bradley was also a founding member of The Casebook of Saskatoon, a society devoted to the study of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlockian writings. There, he met the late Dr. William A.S. Sarjeant, with whom he collaborated on the classic book Ms. Holmes of Baker Street (1989). This work put forth the startling theory that the Great Detective was a woman, and was greeted upon publication with what has been described as “a firestorm of controversy.” As he’s explained in interviews, Bradley was always an avid reader of mysteries, even as a child: “My grandmother used to press them upon us when we were very young. One of the first books she gave me was Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Holiday. I was profoundly influenced by it.”
Upon retirement, Bradley began writing full time. His next book, The Shoebox Bible (2006), has been compared with Tuesdays With Morrie and Mister God, This is Anna. In this beautiful memoir, Bradley tells the story of his early life in southern Ontario, and paints a vivid portrait of his mother, a strong and inspirational woman who struggled to raise three children on her own during tough times.
In July of 2007, Bradley won the Debut Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009), based on a sample that would become the first novel in a series featuring eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. As Bradley has explained, it was the character of Flavia that inspired him to embark upon the project: “I started to write The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie in the spring of 2006. Flavia walked into another novel I was writing as an incidental character, and she hijacked the book. Although I didn’t finish that book, Flavia stuck with me.” The Dagger award brought international attention to Bradley’s fiction debut, and Sweetness and the additional novels planned for the series will be published in twenty-eight languages and in more than thirty countries.
Alan Bradley lives in Malta with his wife Shirley and two calculating cats. He is currently working on the third novel starring Flavia de Luce, A Red Herring Without Mustard.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. The novel opens with Flavia going over the circumstances of her own death, as she lies in the churchyard. What effect did this opening have on your reading, or your understanding of Flavia?
2. In interviews, Alan Bradley has often spoken of Flavia’s idealism, and how her extensive understanding of chemistry is offset by a complete lack of understanding when it comes to family relationships. Discuss Flavia’s place within the de Luce family.
3. As Flavia shows Nialla and Rupert the way to Culverhouse Farm, they run into Mad Meg, who tells them, “the Devil’s come back to Gibbet Wood” and also quotes Matthew 10:16 – “Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” What does she mean? Do you think she is trying to give Flavia a clue as to what she’s seen?
4. Despite its lightness, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag is a dark novel, dealing with the death of a child and the deceptions that both preceded and followed that tragic event. How does Bradley balance the novel’s style with the subject matter?
5. Aunt Felicity is domineering and awful, despite the Colonel’s claims to the contrary; Cynthia is not the bishop’s helpful wife, but an “ogress.” Where do Flavia’s dark opinions of others come from? Is she purposefully undercutting the village’s charming veneer, or does she just not trust anyone?
6. Discuss the circumstances of Robin Ingleby’s death, and how Grace and Gordon Ingleby have lived for the five years since. Do you foresee an end to their grieving, once the truth comes to light?
7. Does Flavia truly engage in the surrounding world, or is her connection merely one of intellectual curiosity?
8. What do you make of Nialla’s reaction to Rupert’s death? Did you ever suspect her of murder? In the end, Flavia imagines her continuing on with the puppet show, out of the limelight…. Do you think she’s right?
9. Why does Flavia find it fairly easy to relate to Mad Meg while others in the village do not?
10. In one interview, Alan Bradley commented, “I don’t think we trust children enough any more [or] leave them alone enough… I recall being that age, and one of the greatest blessings was being left to myself. You find your own interests and amusements and pursue them — and that has a huge effect on the outcome of your life.” Are kids today given enough freedom? Or, is Flavia given too much?
11. One reviewer has compared the fictional setting of Bishop’s Lacey to Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Mead and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s London. Where do you see the Flavia books sitting in terms of traditional English mysteries, or the country-manor mystery genre in particular?
12. While the first two novels of the series have been enjoyed by teen readers as well, the books are written for adults. What is the appeal, for adult readers, of having a precocious eleven-year-old narrator like Flavia?
13. Should Rupert’s killer be send to prison?
14. These novels are so entertaining largely thanks to the originality of the supporting characters, those villagers and interlopers who unknowingly come under Flavia’s microscope with every paged turned. Who are the most interesting characters in the novel? Are there some you would like to see more of in future books?
15. What do you think the future holds for Flavia de Luce?