The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley


I know this is a huge image, but I just love this cover - typography and all.

Oh, what fun is Flavia de Luce! As most of you have read the book, I will not do an in-depth review, mostly just a rave for what this story is: pure wicked fun.

When the story opened with Flavia bound and gagged in the closet, I was really concerned as to the nature of this mystery. Lo and behold, her two sisters Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy) are the culprits, having whisked Flavia away when her annoyances prove too much. However, Flavia frees herself quite easily, and I was immediately aware that Flavia was no ordinary 11 year old. Plotting her revenge in her chemist’s lair, her Holy of Holies, as she calls it, Flavia shows us she is not one with whom to mess. She tells us:

My particular passion was poison.

As she distills, boils, and mixes, the youngest de Luce speaks eruditely, with a vocabulary that would shame my first and second year college students. Buckshaw, the family home in Britain, houses Flavia; her aforementioned two sisters, one with a predilection for literature, the other, a predilection for her own image; her father Colonel de Luce, the silent, enigmatic type; Dogger, the family gardener/caretaker, fiercely loyal to the family; Mrs. Mullett, the cook who can’t seem to please the family’s collective palate; and Gladys, the bicycle. The time period is early 1950s when fathers are distant from daughters and a child can ride about on her bicycle without great fear. Flavia’s mother is dead from a mountaineering accident, but Harriet is ever-present in the household, even Gladys the bicycle was formerly Harriet’s.

When a dead jack snipe appears on the doorstep with an unusual stamp speared on its beak, Colonel de Luce is quite shaken. Flavia, with her powers of deduction, knows something is not right at Buckshaw. That night, Flavia hears a mysterious conversation at the keyhole of her father’s study and finds a dead body in the cucumber garden the next morning. Afraid her father may have murdered the mysterious stranger, she sets out on an adventure in stamp collecting, research, old deaths, and, of course, pie. The mystery is off and running, and as a frequent reader of mysteries, I certainly had to disarm my Aha! tick. I normally cannot stand it when anyone other than Sherlock Holmes has an Aha! moment to deduce something impossible. However, Flavia herself is so disarming, I couldn’t help but forgive it. Looking back, I was still able to discern the major aspects of the mystery – my major motivation for reading mysteries – so no harm done.

Plus, Bradley’s characterization of Flavia is just so well done. I read that she actually popped up as a slight character in another book:

Flavia walked onto the pages of another book I was writing, and simply hijacked the story. I was actually well into this other book – about three or four chapters – and as I introduced a main character, a detective, there was a point where he was required to go to a country house and interview this colonel.

I got the detective up to the driveway and there was this girl sitting on a camp stool doing something with a notebook and a pencil. He stopped and asked her what she was doing and she said, “Writing down license plate numbers,” and he said, “Well, there can’t be many in such a place,” and she said, “Well, I have yours, don’t I?” I came to a stop. I had no idea who this girl was and where she came from.

She just materialized. I can’t take any credit for Flavia at all. I’ve never had a character who came that much to life. I’ve had characters that tend to tell you what to do, but Flavia grabbed the controls on page one. She sprang full-blown with all of her attributes – her passion for poison, her father and his history – all in one package.

I find this quite delightful. I’ve heard many writers speak about the process and the creation of their characters, but that this one girl, this bit character, this side role, if you will, was so precocious and fascinating to Bradley that he had to create her and fill her in… I love it. So, I will leave you with a few of my favorite Flavia moments:

I saw my hand reaching out, small and white in the shadowed room; felt my fingers touch its cold face; felt my thumb pop open the silver catch. Now the brass pendulum was right at my fingertips, swinging to and fro, to and fro with its ghastly tock-tocking. I was almost afraid to touch the thing. I took a deep breath and grabbed the pulsing pendulum. Its inertia made it squirm heavily in my hand for a moment, like a goldfish suddenly seized; like the tell-tale heart before it fell still.

and:

And so we sat, Father and I, primly, like two old women at a parish tea. It was not a perfect way to live one’s life, but it would have to do.

and:

Accordingly, I began to sob again and told him I had no mother and that she had died in far-off Tibet in a mountaineering accident and that I missed her dreadfully.

“‘Ere, ‘ere, miss,” he said. “Cryin’s not allowed in these ‘here premises. Takes away from the natural dignity of the surroundin’s, so to speak. You’d best dry up now ‘fore I ‘ave to toss you in the clink.”

and last but not least:

He had told me that he had a girl just like me at home (which, somehow, I doubted), name of Elizabeth.

Utterly charming. It was also really refreshing to have a young, female protagonist who doesn’t need a boy sidekick and who adores and passionately loves science. I am really looking forward to getting my hands on Bradley’s next Flavia de Luce mystery, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. Luckily, it’s already out, so I won’t have to wait too, too long.

Warning: Kids may want to play with your stovetop in lieu of Bunsen burners after reading.

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7 responses to “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

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