Friday, June 4, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Author: Alan Bradley
Bantam, 2010 (originally published in 2009)
370 pages

This first novel from Canadian author Alan Bradley is both delicious and ingenious. Main character Flavia de Luce is a highly precocious eleven year-old girl with a passion for chemistry and an obsession with poisons. It's 1950, and Flavia lives on an old family estate in rural England with her emotionally distant father, two older sisters (looks-obsessed Ophelia and bookworm Daphne), a mysterious groundskeeper called Dogger, and Mrs. Mullet, a part-time housekeeper and cook who occasionally bakes awful custard pies that no one in the family will eat. Flavia's mother, an adventurous flapper-type named Harriet, died when Flavia was only about a year old, something that lingers in the back of Flavia's mind.

But this is really a mystery, and that part of the story begins when a dead bird is found on the doorstep. The specific type of bird was out of season in England at that time of year, so obviously, it hadn't come from those parts. An orange postage stamp was hanging from the bird's bill, as if placed there on purpose. Flavia's father, a passionate philatelist, immediately knows something's afoot. Hmmm.

Sometime later, Flavia and Dogger eavesdrop on an argument between her father and someone they cannot see or identify. The next morning, Flavia stumbles across a dying man in the cucumber patch. He breathes a final word to her, and then dies. Turns out the dead bloke and Flavia's father were old school chums, and suddenly, another very intriguing story begins to unfold. Flavia becomes a fine amateur sleuth, combining her knowledge of science and chemistry with an often amusing "common" sense that only someone her age and inexperience could have.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a story within a story - and a mystery within a mystery. The writing is superb, and Flavia is the most wonderful literary character I've come across in years. I simply adore her! She makes me want to break out in a British accent. Even in this review. As you can probably tell.

The author was seventy years old when The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (his first novel) was published. (That gives me hope!) Hopefully, the commercial and literary success of this book (it was a bestseller and won a Dagger Award in 2009) will ensure future books featuring Flavia. Actually, the next book - The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag - is already out, in hardcover. And a third book is in the works. I look forward to reading them all!