SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE by Alan Bradley
“I still shivered with joy whenever I thought of the rainy autumn day that Chemistry had fallen into my life.
I had been scaling the bookcases in the library, pretending I was a noted Alpinist, when my foot slipped and a heavy book was knocked to the floor….
The book’s title was AN ELEMENTARY STUDY OF CHEMISTRY, and within moments it had taught me that the word iodine comes from a word meaning ‘violet.’ and that the name bromine was derived from a Greek word meaning ‘a stench.’ These were the sorts of things I needed to know! I slipped the fat red volume under my sweater and took it upstairs, and it wasn’t until later that I noticed the name H.de Luce written on the flyleaf. The book had belonged to Harriet.”
Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew (APR 28, 2009)
It is 1950.¬†At Buckshaw, her family’s old country estate, wronged Flavia de Luce¬†(what a musical name) is out for vengeance and poison is her weapon of choice.¬†This eleven-year-old British girl, whose passion is unquestionably “the central science,” has access to a thoroughly outfitted lab, and plenty of plants in the garden from which to distill¬†gleaming liquids of wicked retribution. Her older sisters, Ophelia and¬†Daphne (young women with distinct passions of their own),¬†currently stand squarely in her cross hairs and have consequently made themselves scarce!
Flavia goes to eat before finishing her sisterly (and perhaps just) counterblow in their ongoing feud. Already¬†seated at the¬†dining table¬†is the Colonel who generally¬†treats his three daughters with¬†benign neglect, saving his¬†attentiveness for philately (his “sticky treasures,”¬†Flavia says).¬†Their loyal¬†handyman, Dogger, who still suffers from war terrors, presumably putters outside¬†somewhere.¬†And Mrs. Mullet, the cook, bakes them “pus-like custard pies.”¬†Later on this¬†mundane Buckshaw day, Mrs. Mullet opens the kitchen door to the outside and lets “out a sudden shriek.” A dead bird, a jack snipe, lies on the doorstep. Speared on its beak is a postage stamp. Colonel de Luce rushes over to look. And suddenly his face drains to “the color of sodden ashes.” Flavia, of course, is on her father’s heels and, seeing his reaction, she says “her spine turned to ice,”¬†fearing her father could keel over¬†from a heart attack.
Soon,¬†she is caught up in a mystery of¬†schoolboy memories, rare orange stamps, and murder.¬†Flavia¬†rides her trusty bicycle, Gladys,¬†to¬†talk to nearby¬†village residents (arguably,¬†the tale lags¬†a trifle¬†when¬†she is snooping in Bishop’s Lacey),¬†research theories at the local library, and visit someone jailed. She even helps the police inspector determine¬†the murder victim’s cause of death. Will she be able to turn up all the pieces¬†of the puzzles before her? More importantly, will she put them together as expertly as she can¬†reel off a chemical formula or brew noxious concoctions? And above all,¬†what will she do if her “meddling” puts her in mortal danger too? Would she be able to hold her own with villains¬†better than¬†she does with her infuriating sisters?
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a positively delightful romp. Alan Bradley’s sprightly prose is sharply observant and yet often funny too: at one point, Flavia remembers a piece of¬†Ophelia’s bullseye¬†advice, ” ‘If ever you’re accosted by a man…kick him¬†in the Casanovas and run like the blue blazes!’ “¬†Trouble is, still pre-pubescent Flavia doesn’t “know where the Casanovas [are] located.”¬†Of course,¬†Bradley’s Flavia¬†is highly precocious intellectually,¬†but she is still unschooled¬†about many aspects of human nature –¬†perhaps, aside from her age,¬†because her mother, Harriet, isn’t around to dispense maternal¬†advice and encouragement.¬†This¬†endears¬†Flavia all the more as a character one¬†expects will take more literary bows. Told entirely from her perspective, this novel doesn’t neglect to portray the adults as rounded and complicated¬†people. Some¬†novels, mysteries¬†particularly,¬†suffer from too many stick characters whose token duty it is to play red herring¬†on the “whodunit” suspect list.¬†Bradley might have made the identity of a major culprit a mite easy to spot, but he doesn’t scrimp on fleshing out¬†most denizens of his novel.¬†Flavia’s sisters¬†take only a few bows of their own in this inaugural tale, but they are definite individuals who¬†perhaps¬†will take more in future¬†volumes.
Basking¬†in the enjoyment of this¬†language-and-idea-rich¬†mystery (a fine candidate for reading aloud, by the way),¬†I was reminded¬†at the¬†perimeter of awareness¬†of Jeanne¬†Birdsall’s¬†The Penderwicks (both books do superior jobs of telling a story of children that adults can enjoy), Laurie¬†R. King’s¬†The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (here the similarity lies in¬†young people¬†devoted to scientific learning), and¬†a 1950′s¬†Astrid¬†Lindgren book¬†entitled¬†Bill Bergson, Master Detective (Flavia and Bill¬†are both¬†courageous and smart young investigators).
For anyone (young, or not so young) who¬†hankers after¬†a¬†satisfying and credible¬†mystery and¬†appreciates¬†that the prime detective is a¬†feisty girl of many talents and emotions,¬†The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the book to¬†spoon or fork up and¬†devour.¬†Real pie can’t¬†hit the spot any better.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 650 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Delacorte Press (April 28, 2009)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Alan Bradley|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||¬†Read our review of:|
- Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009)
- The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (2010)
- A Red Herring Without Mustard (2011)
- I Am Half Sick of Shadows (November 2011)