I had seen Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie highly recommended by several bloggers a few years ago, so when it came up on sale at Audible, I snapped it up.
The book starts off abruptly with 11-year-old Flavia de Luce gagged and tied up in a dark closet finding her way out of the predicament her older sisters had put her in. She plots her revenge by concocting a poison ivy extract to put into her sister’s lipstick, taking sibling rivalry to new heights (…or depths, depending on how you look at it).
Flavia, as the youngest of three girls and daughter of a distracted widowed father in 1950’s England, had been left to entertain herself much of her life and discovered early on an extensive love of chemistry. The old English manor house that had been passed down through generations of de Luces and came equipped with a full laboratory leftover from an ancestor with similar interests and became Flavia’s sanctum. Her primarily chemical study was of poisons.
One morning the housekeeper discovers a dead bird outside the door with a stamp stuck on its beak, unusual not only in itself, but in the reaction it evokes in Flavia’s father. Then one night she awakens to hear her father arguing with a stranger, and when she peeps into the keyhole, her father’s man, Dogger, sends her back to her room. But when she finds the stranger in their cucumber patch the next morning, and he says, “Vale!” with his dying breath, she starts putting together what she observes with what she heard of the argument the night before and then searches out old newspaper articles and talks to various people in town, sleuthing out the mystery one step ahead of the police.
I’ve seen this described as a cozy mystery, and it is that. Flavia is certainly a precocious and engaging protagonist. As a child, she has unsuspected access to many people and places in the village. In interviews quoted in Wikipedia,
Bradley describes the theme as “youthful idealism” and how far it can take someone “if it’s not stamped out, as it so often is.” Thinking back to his own childhood, he identifies with Flavia’s 11-year-old zeal, remembering the “feeling of being absolutely unstoppable,” capable of anything. He explains, “when you’re that age, you sometimes have a great burning enthusiasm that is very deep and very narrow, and that is something that has always intrigued me – that world of the 11-year-old that is so quickly lost.”
Though Flavia definitely embodies that youthful idealism, some readers, myself included, feel that she’s beyond precocious. Even though she’s bright and has done lots of reading and self-educating, she comes across as too adult in some ways, such as an observation that someone looked like a “sour old chamberlain were looking on dyspeptically as his mistress unfurled silk stockings over her long, youthful legs.” There’s a certain suspension of disbelief one has to have in any “child as hero” story, but I think Bradley stretches that almost too far. Plus I was dismayed at the number of “damns” and “hells” scattered throughout the book, most of them from the mouth of Flavia herself. He does give her a few childish qualities, such as pigtails and braces, her reactions when she’s thwarted, and her cycling all over the area on her bike, named Gladys.
One other aspect that makes Flavia not entirely likeable to me is that she lies without compunction or correction. Maybe this is to show that she hasn’t been very well disciplined or taught morals in her neglected childhood: maybe Bradley just felt that had to be part of her character in order to accomplish what she did.
Who would have thought that an engaging, funny, and clever mystery could be crafted based on chemistry and philately (stamp-collecting) with an 11-year-old sleuth? Bradley deserves credit for having done so, but since what I don’t like about Flavia mars what I do like, I don’t know that I will ever read the sequels. But I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes:
Wrapped up in the music, I threw myself into an overstuffed chair and let my legs dangle over the arm, the position in which Nature intended music to be listened to, and for the first time in days I felt the muscles in my neck relaxing.
Heaven must be a place where the library is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. No … eight days a week.
If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as “dearie.” When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poison, and come to “Cyanide,” I am going to put under “Uses” the phrase “Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one ‘Dearie.'”
A peculiar feeling passed over me–or, rather, through me, as if I were an umbrella remembering what it felt like to pop open in the rain.
The woman was putting her purse in the drawer and settling down behind the desk, and I realized I had never seen her before in my life. Her face was as wrinkled as one of those forgotten apples you sometimes find in the pocket of last year’s winter jacket.
“Yes?” she said, peering over her spectacles. They teach them to do that at the Royal Academy of Library Science.
I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Jayne Entwhistle. Her inflections, style, expressiveness, and voice really added to the enjoyment of the book.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)