December 13, 2009
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
2009 Delacorte Press
Finished on 11/29/09
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
Recipient of the Debut Dagger Award from Canada’s Crime Writers’ Association (2007)
In his wickedly brilliant first novel, Debut Dagger Award winner Alan Bradley introduces one of the most singular and engaging heroines in recent fiction: eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison. It is the summer of 1950—and a series of inexplicable events has struck Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia’s family calls home. A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”
To Flavia the investigation is the stuff of science: full of possibilities, contradictions, and connections. Soon her father, a man raising his three daughters alone, is seized, accused of murder. And in a police cell, during a violent thunderstorm, Colonel de Luce tells his daughter an astounding story—of a schoolboy friendship turned ugly, of a priceless object that vanished in a bizarre and brazen act of thievery, of a Latin teacher who flung himself to his death from the school’s tower thirty years before. Now Flavia is armed with more than enough knowledge to tie two distant deaths together, to examine new suspects, and begin a search that will lead her all the way to the King of England himself. Of this much the girl is sure: her father is innocent of murder—but protecting her and her sisters from something even worse….
An enthralling mystery, a piercing depiction of class and society, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a masterfully told tale of deceptions—and a rich literary delight.
I loved this mystery! I only wish I had reviewed it as soon as I finished. The more time passes, the less interested I become about writing reviews. And this past month has been especially good with regards to the quantity of books I've read. I was sick with a nasty cold for a couple of weeks and missed quite a bit of work during the first week. And now I'm behind and have five reviews to write! Yikes! But I digress.
As I said, I loved this book. The mystery kept me guessing. The humor had me laughing out loud. Flavia is a marvelous character and I can't wait for the next installment in this new series. I've marked several pages, here and there, and will use those passages to pad this review. ;)
On sibling rivalry:
It was all Ophelia's fault. She was, after all, seventeen, and therefore expected to possess at least a modicum of the maturity she should come into as an adult. That she should gang up with Daphne, who was thirteen, simply wasn't fair. Their combined ages totaled thirty years. Thirty years!—against my eleven. It was not only unsporting, it was downright rotten. And it simply screamed out for revenge.
On the joys of stereotypes:
Having pointed out the body, I watched in fascination as Sergeant Woolmer unpacked and mounted his camera on a wooden tripod, his fingers, fat as sausages, making surprisingly gentle microscopic adjustments to the little silver controls. As he took several covering exposures of the garden, lavishing particular attention on the cucumber patch, Sergeant Graves was opening a worn leather case in which were bottles ranged neatly row on row, and in which I glimpsed a packet of glassine envelopes.
I stepped forward eagerly, almost salivating, for a closer look.
"I wonder, Flavia," Inspector Hewitt said, stepping gingerly into the cucumbers, "if you might ask someone to organize some tea?"
He must have seen the look on my face.
"We've had rather an early start this morning. Do you think you could manage to rustle something up?"
So that was it. As at a birth, so at a death. Without so much as a kiss-me-quick-and-mind-the-marmalade, the only female in sight is enlisted to trot off and see that the water is boiled. Rustle something up, indeed! What did he take me for, some kind of cowboy?
On libraries and the love of books:
I gave the door a shake, and then a good pounding. I cupped my hands to the glass and peered inside, but except for a beam of sunlight falling through motes of dust before coming to rest upon shelves of novels there was nothing to be seen.
"Miss Pickery!" I called, but there was no answer.
"Oh, scissors! I said again. I should have to put off my researches until another time. As I stood outside in Cow Lane, it occurred to me that Heaven must be a place where the library is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
No... eight days a week.
It's rare that I find myself at a loss for words for a book I enjoyed so immensely. Rather than bumble around trying to come up with an original thought, please allow me to share the following:
Praise from the Debut Dagger Award Judges of the UK Crime Writers’ Association:
"Really adored the voice of the characters in this- especially Flavia, the spirited main protagonist- and the sense of place is beautifully described, particularly when telling the history of the house and its inhabitants. The family unit, comprising of the taciturn, introspective Colonel and his three daughters is well written, humorous and the sibling relationships very realistic. The author should be praised for creating a work that has nostalgic interest as well as a murder mystery, in places this almost reads like an Enid Blyton novel for adults!"
"I adored this! Our heroine is refreshingly youthful, funny and sharp and the author creates such a strong sense of time and place. Flavia’s eccentric family are delightful and I love seeing them interact within their crazy home. There are also interesting depths to the plot — the stamp collecting, the chemistry experiments, and the acknowledgement of past events and how they have affected these characters. The author’s tone is very tongue-in-cheek and offers something quite different in this genre, and the story is cleverly structured and beautifully written. This doesn’t read like a first novel. Assuming the mystery itself will be as enticing and smoothly handled as the opening, I can see Flavia solving crimes into adulthood. Great title too!"
"The most original of the bunch, I think, with a deliciously deceptive opening which really sets the tone of macabre fun. Flavia is a wonderful creation, along with the rest of her eccentric family, and makes for a highly engaging sleuth. Think the Mitfords, as imagined by Dorothy L Sayers. The plot, with its intriguing philatelic elements, is nicely ingenious and delivers a very good end, with a fun twist. Would make very good Sunday night telly, I think."
Wise beyond her years and more than a bit precocious, Flavia has quickly become one of my favorite characters. Anyone who names her bicycle "Gladys" ranks high on my list! I can hardly wait to read the second in the series, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, which is due out on March 9th.
Further praise from fellow bloggers:
Dovegreyreader writes: ...it's ace, absolutely top drawer, funny verging on hilarious as eleven-year old detective Flavia de Luce unravels the mystery of the body found in her father's cucumber patch...
Fiesty and hilarious, Flavia waltzes precociously but not annoyingly so through the adult world with intelligent and logical panache, her risk assessments are those to be expected of an eleven-year old so Flavia boldly strides or cycles forth (on a bike called Gladys) where her instinct leads....
The first-person narrative is exquisite, page after page had me laughing at the sheer brilliance of the setting and the dialogue and Flavia's unique turn of phrase whilst also thinking what a nightmare she would have been to parent, the variety of child we describe as eleven going on eighteen, no wonder her father stays in his study examining his stamp collection.
But the voice is unique and original and unlike anything else I've read for a long time and I gather each in the series will focus on a lost aspect of English life which will suit all us nostalging types perfectly. This first offering a great foundation on which to grow the next and a perfectly lovely gorgeous read over several grey chilly Winter afternoons.
Stephanie says: Flavia is a really fun character. With plenty of sass, humor and intelligence she is easy to like and a joy to read about.
Lesa writes: I loved Flavia, her intensity and her grit. At times, she was precocious. At other times, when fighting with her sisters, she was an eleven-year-old who turned from "Flavia the Invisible into Flavia the Holy Terror." And, she was just as ingenious and heroic as any amateur sleuth.
Those readers eager for an original heroine, and a complex, at times, amusing, mystery, will appreciate The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I wouldn't be afraid to give this to readers who loved Harry Potter. There's something about Flavia that reminds me of the lonely Harry. Yes, it's marketed as an adult mystery, but there is no reason other young people won't enjoy reading about Flavia.
This is one of those wonderful books that made me wish for more time in the day. I so wanted to start all over from the beginning and read it again as soon as I finished the last page. I'll have to keep it in mind for a book club recommendation, as that always gives me an excuse for a re-read.
Note to my mom: I know this is just the sort of book you would love and I think I know you well enough to know that you'll want to order a copy for yourself. Two words -- please wait. :)