Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the PieThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan BradleyMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an interesting book. I came into it not knowing anything about it other than it had been recomended on some Internet list of “mysteries you should read” and it sounded interesting. When I went to put it on my Amazon wish list (which is an easy way to keep track of things I want to read) it turned out it was on sale so I clicked down my $2.99 or whatever it was and there it sat in my Kindle, awaiting a closer perusal.

When I finally started it, it was good and a bit quirky. The protagonist is 11 year old Flavia de Luce and the year is just after WWII somewhere in the English countryside. The de Luce family is headed by Haviland, an emotionally distant father, distant presumably ever since the death of his wife some years before. Also in the family are Flavia's two older sisters, Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy) and they, along with family friend/groundsman Dogger and housekeeper Mrs. Mullet all live in Buckshaw, a manor house perilously close to falling into disrepair.

The plot begins when Flavia overhears her father arguing loudly with a stranger who then turns up near death in the garden. Just before he expires he is found by Flavia, says one word. “Vale,” and dies. This is too much for the 11 year old, who has her own chemistry lab in the attic and often fantasizes talking to famous (and often dead) scientists. She is the type of girl who exacts her revenge by putting extract of poison ivy into the lipstick of her hormonal teenage sister and cannot leave a mystery unsolved. To that end, she and her trusted bicycle Gladys zoom around, ferreting out clues, talking to witnesses and through it all, solving not only the current murder but another which took place 20 years earlier and involved her father.

It's not a bad first novel, and the author, Alan Bradley won the Debut Dagger award from the Crime Writers Association based on a first chapter and outline. What it does, though, is capture the essence of the time period in which it is set quite well. It is a throwback to a simpler style and a far less complicated set of characters. While Flavia is well-drawn as a character, she's really the only one. The rest of the cast lack any kind of real nuance, being drawn withe broad strokes a reader of 40s and 50s era mysteries would be instantly comfortable with.

With Flavia, though, it's often impossible to remember she's supposed to be 11 as she's precocious enough for three kids her age. Writing young people is tricky, especially in a book not aimed at that age range. Despite the protagonist, this never really strikes me as a YA book. The plot is sophisticated if not exactly complex and there are several aspects of the mystery which come off as affectations rather than organic plot devices.

For me, it took a while to get through the book. The language seemed, at times a bit stilted to start with, not really gathering any steam until the end. And while I enjoyed reasonably well this first adventure, I'm not sure I would pick any more (not that I'd turn them down if they were offered, but I wasn't sufficently whelmed to give them priority in my TBR list).

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