Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Even though I was intrigued by the title of this book, I didn’t read it when it was published in 2009. As soon as I learned the book featured an eleven-year-old protagonist, I decided I’d better skip it, much as the title did intrigue me. I’m generally not a fan of child protagonists. They usually irritate me more than anything else. I don’t know what caused me to become interested in the book again, but I’m certainly glad I picked it up. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a real treat, and just what I was looking for at the time.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is set in the fictional village of Bishop’s Lacey, England, in 1950. The protagonist is the very precocious eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives in her family’s crumbling mansion, “Buckshaw” with her eccentric, stamp collecting father, and her two older sisters, seventeen-year-old Ophelia and thirteen-year-old Daphne. Sadly, the girls’ mother, Harriet, died during a mountain climbing expedition when Flavia was just a baby. Joining the family is Mrs. Mullet, the housekeeper and cook (even though she does keep baking the family unwanted “pus-like custard pies”), and there’s Dogger, a former soldier who served with Colonel de Luce. Dogger’s position at Buckshaw is less defined than Mrs. Mullet’s. “Father’s factotum,” as Flavia refers to Dogger, is suffering from shell shock, and takes whatever job suits him at the moment. When The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie opens, Dogger is the family gardener. He’s also Flavia’s confidante and the person who teaches her the skills most eleven-year-olds would be better off not knowing.

Flavia enjoys reading mystery novels, and she often refers to them when she speaks. Her real passion, however, is chemistry, and she spends much of her time in the upstairs lab created by a mentally unstable ancestor, Tarquin de Luce. “My particular passion was poison,” Flavia says, and she means it. She often concocts poisonous ointments, etc. in order to exact revenge on Ophelia and Daphne, who spend much of their time terrorizing poor Flavia.

When a dying man is found in Buckshaw’s cucumber patch, a man who utters his final word – “Vale” – to Flavia, herself, and who was surrounded by “a whiff of a peculiar odor – an odor whose name was,” says Flavia, “on the very tip of my tongue,” Flavia knows, without a doubt, that she’s encountered the biggest adventure of her young life.

Flavia is positive that a dead jack snipe, with a rare Black Penny stamp impaled on its bill, and found a short time prior to the discovery of the dead man, somehow ties in with his murder. If it was murder. And she worries that her own father, a stamp collector who “loved stamps more dearly than he loved his offspring” might somehow be involved.

Determined to solve the murder before Inspector Hewitt does – if he does – and with very little to go on, Flavia is off on her mother’s old bicycle, renamed “Gladys” by our heroine, to interview suspects, conduct necessary research, and even nose around in the rubbish because “You never know what you’re getting into when you stick your nose in other people’s rubbish.”

It’s safe to say that Flavia’s “nosing around” gets her into more trouble that she’s ever encountered in her eleven years. Before you read very far into this charming book, you’ll know that Flavia’s going to need all of her cunning and all of her knowledge, about chemistry and about everything else, in order to clear someone she loves and bring a real murderer to justice.

I loved this fresh, original, and often funny, mystery. Though one might expect a terribly precocious eleven-year-old, who dabbles in poisonous concoctions and gets the best of most, if not all, of the adults around her to be insufferable, Flavia comes across as a breath of fresh air. For all her precociousness, all her intelligence, and all her terribly strong will, there’s a sweetness and a vulnerability about Flavia de Luce that make her downright lovable, and the reader can’t help but respond. And even though Flavia describes herself as an “eleven-year-old murderess in pigtails and jumper,” she’s not nearly as bad as she – and some reviewers – make her out to be. No, she’s no pushover, and she’s certainly nobody’s fool, and really, there’s nothing wrong with that. Flavia’s brave, witty, and imaginative. She’s a little girl with whom most readers really enjoy spending time. And make no mistake, Flavia de Luce is no younger version of Nancy Drew or Maisie Dobbs or even Miss Marple. Flavia, just like the amateur sleuths mentioned above, is truly an original, but any comparison ends there.

The supporting cast of characters is wonderfully drawn as well. Besides the members of Flavia’s family, Mrs. Mullet, and Dogger, there’s a rather mysterious photographer, and Miss Mountjoy, the retired librarian, whose “Reign of Terror” has become legend, and who’s the niece of “old Cuppa Twining,” an academic whose death many years ago is linked to Colonel de Luce and to the book’s present day murder. There’s Maximilian Brock, a retired musician, who may be earning a living writing stories for American romance magazines under feminine pen names. There’s Tully, owner of “The Thirteen Drakes,” his daughter, Mary, and host of village eccentrics, all of who seem utterly believable.

I also thought Bradley did a wonderful job of bringing a 1950s English village to life. I could really “see” the shops, the old hotel, the library, the fields, and the woods. And Buckshaw. Buckshaw is, I think, a wonderful place. Amazingly, Bradley has not spent much time at all in the English countryside. Still, he did a marvelous job of evoking England just after the war, and showing the reader that the war, though officially ended, is still very much a part of day-to-day life in Bishop’s Lacey.

The mystery itself is wonderfully set up. It’s complex enough to keep one reading and guessing, but not so complex as to detract from Flavia’s charming narration. And thankfully, it is believable.

I found the pacing in this book to be “just right.” It never bogs down, yet it’s slow enough to reflect sleepy village life. This is more of a cozy, after all, not a fast paced thriller, though Bradley does include many twists and turns in his plot, enough, I think, to keep even the most demanding reader interested and guessing. It’s fun to follow Flavia as she investigates one clue after another, and tricks or cajoles one adult after another into sharing his or her confidences and memories. And, just so we don’t forget that Flavia is only eleven-years-old, no matter how clever and intelligent she is, there’s a beautiful exploration of the father-daughter relationship as Flavia comes to understand that her father isn’t invincible, and that he does have his faults, like anyone else.

The prose in this book is delightful, just perfect for the subject matter and the characters. Flavia’s voice is incredible. I was totally prepared to reject an eleven-year-old narrator, especially one so precocious, but I found myself not only accepting of Flavia, but adoring her as well. This wonderful, courageous little girl really does deserve a series all her own.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is written with a wicked sense of humor, Flavia’s sense of humor, of course, and one that suits the book perfectly. The excerpt below will show you what I mean. The de Luces are Catholics, but of necessity, they attend an Anglican church, something that Flavia doesn’t mind at all:

Even though we de Luces had been Roman Catholics since chariot races were all the rage, that did not keep us from attending St. Tancred’s Bishop’s Lacey’s only church and a fortress of the Church of England if there ever was one.

There were several reasons for our patronage. The first was its handy location, and another the fact that Father and the Vicar had both (although at different times) been to school at Greyminster. Besides, Father had once pointed out to us, consecration was permanent, like a tattoo. St. Tancred’s, he said, had been a Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation and, in his eyes, remained one.

Consequently, every Sunday morning without exception we straggled across the fields like ducks, Father slashing intermittently at the vegetation with his Malacca walking stick, Feely, Daffy, and me in that order, and Dogger, in his Sunday best, bringing up the rear.

No one at St. Tancred’s paid us the slightest attention. Some years before, there had been a minor outbreak of grumbling from the Anglicans, but all had been settled without blood or bruises by a well-timed contribution to the Organ Restoration fund.

“Tell them we may not be praying with them,” Father told the Vicar, “but we are at least not actively praying against them.”

Once, when Feely lost her head and bolted for the Communion rail, Father refused to speak to her until the following Sunday. Ever since that day, whenever she so much as shifted her feet in church, Father would mutter, “Steady on, old girl.” He did not need to catch her eye; his profile, which was that of the standard-bearer in some particularly ascetic Roman legion, was enough to keep us in our places. At least in public.

Now, glancing over at Feely as she knelt with her eyes closed, her fingertips touching and pointed to Heaven, and her lips shaping soft words of devotion, I had to pinch myself to keep in mind that I was sitting next to the Devil’s Hairball.

The congregation at St. Tancred’s had soon become accustomed to our ducking and bobbing, and we basked in Christian charity – except for the time that Daffy told the organist, Mr. Denning, that Harriet had instilled in all of us her firm belief that the story of the Flood in Genesis was derived from the racial memory of the cat family, with particular reference to the drowning of kittens.

That had caused a bit of a stir, but Father had put things right by making a handsome donation to the Roof Repair Fund, a sum he deducted from Daffy’s allowance.

If you like that kind of whimsical, tongue-in-cheek humor, you’re sure to love this book. Flavia is possessed of so much joie de vivre she manages to lighten the reader’s heart and put a smile on his or her face despite the fact that we’re reading about the solution to a murder.

With The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley has set the bar very high for his mystery series. I have no doubts that he manages, in subsequent books, to live up to, or exceed, the promise of the first book. This is a series I’m going to follow, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself more and more with each book.


Recommended: If you like the “cozy” genre of mysteries, I think you’ll love this book.

Note: I don’t know how many books have been planned for this series, but the ones already published include:

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Book 1)
The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Book 2)
A Red Herring with Mustard (Book 3)
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Book 4, to be released on November 1st)

1 comment:

Lilian Nattel said...

I'm glad to hear about this book. Normally I wouldn't be attracted to a novel featuring a child protagonist either, but there have been a couple of exceptions. This sounds like one.