The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
A Flavia de Luce Mystery by Alan Bradley
Review: Alan Bradley's novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, is the 1950s debut for eleven-year-old English sleuth and chemistry buff, Flavia Salina Dolores de Luca or "Flave" as she calls herself. It's a five-star performance for young and old, and well worth applauding.
Flave's a brat, a loveable, precocious and endearing one, but a brat nevertheless. She's fixated on chemistry, thanks to the lab paraphernalia and ancestral genes inherited from a mentally unstable Tarquin de Luce. "My particular passion was poison," she says. She's also influenced by the mystery novels she reads and likes to refer to them. So when Flave discovers a downed man gasping his last in the cucumber patch at her family home of Buckshaw near the village of Bishop's Lacey, with his final whispered word "Vale" cloaked in "a whiff of a peculiar odour — an odour whose name was, for an instant, on the very tip of my tongue ", she is ecstatically in her element. Now, she can apply her knowledge of chemistry for more than avenging slights from her older sisters, seventeen-year-old boy-mooning Ophelia ("Feely") and thirteen-year-old bibliophile Daphne ("Daffy") with her fountain-like spewing of passages from the latest novel she has read.
Flavia's premiere case gets complicated when a dead bird, a jack snipe indigenous to Norway, is found on the premises with a Black Penny stamp impaled on its bill. Her father, a stamp collector who she thinks "loved stamps more dearly than he loved his offspring," especially after his wife, her beloved mother, Harriet, died in a mountain climbing accident, gets entangled in the case, too. And his entanglement draws in "Father's man, his factotum," Dogger, an abused prisoner of war who it was rumoured "had been forced to eat rats," suffers occasional delirium and is "happiest in the garden." But others are implicated, too, as Inspector Hewitt discovers. There's Mrs. Mullet, the cook, for example who thinks of herself "as a character in a poem by A.A. Milne" and produces "pus-like custard pies" for which, Flave says, the family "would rather eat creamed worms on toast." There's a strange photographer who comes to call and a retired librarian, a niece to "old Cuppa Twining" whose mysterious death years ago is linked to Flavia's father when he was Jocko, the schoolboy , to the dead man in the garden, and to others in the story. Always just a step ahead of the Inspector and his men, Flave races about the village and its environs on "Gladys" her mother's ancient rechristened bike to interview her own list of suspects, do her own experiments, find newspaper archives and obits and root through waste containers because "You never know what you're getting into when you stick your nose in other people's rubbish." Her nosing around, though, gets her into far more trouble than she ever imagined, and she must use all of her ingenuity and knowledge of poisons and chemicals in order to clear her father's name, save her own life and bring a murderer to justice.
Flavia is undoubtedly the star of this show. She is no goody-two-shoes but neither is she as wicked as she tries to present herself. Her love for her parents is obvious but never maudlin, and there is a begrudging affection between her and her sisters, despite the chemicals she injects into Feely's lipstick. As younger readers will appreciate, Flave frequently appears to be light-years ahead of the adults she deals with (one of whom looks like "a George Bernard Shaw who had shrunk in the wash"), and more than capable of holding her own against her siblings. As everyone will agree, she's a pretty smart cookie even on the run as a self-confessed "eleven-year-old murderess in pigtails and jumper," trying to protect her father. And scenes are priceless of her searching the foliage for a poisonous plant while "launching into a loudly whistled rendition of 'Bibbidi — Bobbidi-Boo'" or warming a bread and brown sugar sandwich for as long as it takes to sing three verses of "If I knew You Were Coming I'd've Baked a Cake" or of her cycling "bumpty-bump across the fields" for a shortcut while belting out: "Oh the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter/And on her daughter./They wash their feet in soda water."
A well paced story, written with Dickensian flair, Sherlockian suspense and tongue-in-cheek fun, Alan Bradley's sterling novel sets the bar for the series to follow.
Special thanks to M. Wayne Cunningham (email@example.com) for contributing his review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.
Review Copyright © 2009 — M. Wayne Cunningham — All Rights Reserved
Reprinted with Permission
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd
Delacorte Press (Hardcover), September 2017
ISBN-13: 9780345539960; ISBN-10: 0345539966
Location(s) referenced in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: England
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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley — A Flavia de Luce Mystery
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: February 2009
List Price: $23.00
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Page Author: Lance Wright
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