EBOOK; 386 P. DELACORTE, 2009 SOURCE: PURCHASED
Fans of Louise Fitzhugh’s iconic Harriet the Spy will welcome 11-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce, the heroine of Canadian journalist Bradley’s rollicking debut. In an early 1950s English village, Flavia is preoccupied with retaliating against her lofty older sisters when a rude, redheaded stranger arrives to confront her eccentric father, a philatelic devotee. Equally adept at quoting 18th-century works, listening at keyholes and picking locks, Flavia learns that her father, Colonel de Luce, may be involved in the suicide of his long-ago schoolmaster and the theft of a priceless stamp. The sudden expiration of the stranger in a cucumber bed, wacky village characters with ties to the schoolmaster, and a sharp inspector with doubts about the colonel and his enterprising young detective daughter mean complications for Flavia and enormous fun for the reader.
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series has been making rounds in the blogosphere for the past five years or so, but still it wasn’t until last year that I really heard about the series for the first time. The Finnish translation of the first book in the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, hit the book shops and the first reviews all seemed to be more or less positive. As part of the promotion campaign, Alan Bradley visited Finland during the Helsinki Book Fair in October 2014, and now, about a year after the first book was released in Finnish, the translation of the third book is coming out. All in all, Alan Bradley seems to have taken the Finnish readers by storm. But despite the positive reviews, I haven’t really been actively seeking out the first book. Thus, I decided to add it to my 20 Books of Summer TBR to push myself to get on with it.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie begins with a regular day in the de Luce residence – an emotionally distant single father who focuses more on his own hobbies than his three daughters, and a slow-building state of war between the oldest, Ophelia, and the youngest, Flavia. But Flavia is no ordinary 11-year-old girl as she has inherited her uncle’s passion for chemistry, with a special interest in poisons. The everyday monotony of the household is, however, broken by a surprise visit from her father’s old acquaintance, whom Flavia then discovers the next morning lying in the garden, dead. Everything about the man seems to be a mystery, but Flavia has an inkling that it has something to do with the dead jack spine that was found holding a small postage stamp on its beak. Flavia decides to solve the mystery, because it seems that the past has come back to haunt the de Luce family.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a monster of a title, but at the same time it is delightfully vague enough to intrigue the reader. Alan Bradley has certainly taken his lessons from The Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, whose novels feature similarly fascinating titles, such as N or M?, They Do It with Mirrors, and 4:50 from Paddington. The intriguing title of the novel also comes to reflect the slightly quirky and quaint style of the novel. The book is a mystery novel spun from strange, but unassumingly homely incidences that only the main character, Flavia, seems to observe. This presents yet another similarity to Ms. Christie, who with her Miss Marple series epitomised the traditional British country-house mystery. But instead of an elderly woman, the detective is a headstrong 11-year-old. As a character Flavia is curious and observant, but also a tad selfish and self-involved – an element that, in my opinion, made her come to life. However, I found some of her quirks and her way of talking very unrealistic. For one, I couldn’t imagine a 11-year-old proclaiming someone to be “a man after my heart” spontaneously. Another aspect of the novel that had me second-guessing was the time period. Having jumped into the book without reading the back, it took me several pages before I could place the novel in time – and even them my guess was about 30 years off. As an outsider, it is hard to say whether Bradley’s description of English countryside in the 1950s is accurate, but it sometimes felt like I was looking at a sepia-coloured photograph instead of the one in full colour. It just felt too quaint.
Nevertheless, there are also many great things in The Sweetness of at the Bottom of the Pie. For a debut novel, it is well-crafted leaving room for imagination as well as further development of both characters and surroundings. I also think that for a first book in a series it stood well on its own. Bradley’s writing creates the lovely atmosphere of the story, with alternating intensity points and good hooks, and makes the story flow. It’s perhaps too much to compare Bradley against Christie, but I still wished that the book would have balanced the quaintness of the story with something truly gritty. To reach four stars, the book would have needed more than just atmosphere.
I would, however, recommend The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie to readers looking for a cosy autumn mystery with quirky characters, unconventional family relations, and a bit of school mystery. Plus it’s always refreshing to read about female characters who take interest in “unconventional topics”, such as chemistry and sciences!