June 10, 2010

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

The summer of 1950 hasn't offered up anything out of the ordinary for eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce: bicycle explorations around the village, keeping tabs on her neighbours, relentless battles with her older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, and brewing up poisonous concoctions while plotting revenge in their home's abandoned Victorian chemistry lab, which Flavia has claimed for her own.

But then a series of mysterious events gets Flavia's attention: A dead bird is found on the doormat, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. A mysterious late-night visitor argues with her aloof father, Colonel de Luce, behind closed doors. And in the early morning Flavia finds a red-headed stranger lying in the cucumber patch and watches him take his dying breath. For Flavia, the summer 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."

Did the stranger die of poisoning? There was a piece missing from Mrs. Mullet's custard pie, and none of the de Luces would have dared to eat the awful thing. Or could he have been killed by the family's loyal handyman, Dogger… or by the Colonel himself! At that moment, Flavia commits herself to solving the crime - even if it means keeping information from the village police, in order to protect her family. But then her father confesses to the crime, for the same reason, and it's up to Flavia to free him of suspicion. Only she has the ingenuity to follow the clues that reveal the victim's identity, and a conspiracy that reaches back into the de Luces' murky past.

Flavia de Luce, a little smartass curmudgeon, with a lightning quick mind, is like no other 11 year old girl. Her prestigious family lives in Buckshaw, the rambling ancestral estate of the de Luces. Her father either bolts himself in his study to pursue his philetist interests or in his aging Rolls Royce to grieve the long past death of his wife Harriet; her sister Daphne always has her head buried in Dickens or some other esoteric author; and her sister Ophelia spends her hours staring at her reflection and primping or absorbed in playing her piano. Flavia is left to her own devices, which would be to indulge in her obsessive interest in Chemistry in the laboratory she has claimed as her own at Buckshaw.

When Flavia stumbles upon a man dying in the early hours of the morning in Buckshaw's cucumber patch and with his last odorous exhale states “Vale”, she determinedly sets out to investigate the manner of his death.  Flavia is delicious in her pleasure of things of a gruesome nature. I often found myself chuckling at her over the top rudeness, diabolical thoughts and ornery nature. Flavia tries to be this strong, indomitable force, yet we are shown that at her heart she is still an 11 year old girl with a clutch of insecurities.

The novel is a complex formula in itself;  layers and sidesteps and sequences all combined together to form a brilliant deduction. The quality of the writing is first rate, with vivid descriptions of a bygone era. The abundance of details in this unique series debut are a sheer delight.  So many interesting topics are described in myopic detail that keep you enthralled with the story - philetology, chemistry, the art of conjuring, forensic science and investigations, and literature. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a brilliant effort that shines bright and true. Highly recommend.

Winner of the 2007 CWA Debut Dagger Award.

Next up in the series: The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag released in hardcover March 9, 2010.

My Rating: 5.0


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