Monday, August 31, 2009

Review: The Debut of an Amateur Sleuth

What to say about Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie besides I absolutely loved it? I had to get through 260-something people on the New York Public Library hold list before it was finally mine to read, but it was worth the wait.

Bradley creates one of the most amusing narrators I have read in a while. Flavia de Luce is kind of like an English Harriet the Spy—an 11-year-old super sleuth and chemistry genius growing up in the 1950s. She lives on a huge estate called Buckshaw in the English countryside with her widower father and two older sisters. Flavia has a rousing imagination that keeps her entertained, but it also gives her spunk and fuels her detective side when a full-blown murder mystery lands on her doorstep.

First, a dead jack snipe is found on the doorstep with a postage stamp bizarrely skewered on its beak. A few hours later, Flavia finds a dying man in the cucumber patch and witnesses his dying breath. "Vale!" Once the police arrest her father for the man's murder, Flavia enters detective mode as she believes the two events must be connected and her father's name must be cleared. Flavia's not like any other 11-year-old girl; to her, the murder marks the beginning of a real adventure, and she is delighted:
"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."

I haven't read too many mysteries in my day, because I feel like they, for the most part, are formulaic. Sure, the premise can be different, and a conclusion will be reached through its own, unique journey, but you're always going to reach the end: mystery solved. A good mystery needs something more than its plot, and Bradley succeeded in writing a mystery with enough to like outside of it. As the author states: "It’s a book about how far youthful idealism can carry you if it’s not stamped out, as it so often is."

Flavia is a delightful character to read, and she alone is enough to give this book an edge. In hearing the story from her perspective, we get to solve the mystery with her every step (and mistep) of the way. But one can tell that Bradley also put a lot of effort into creating all of his characters and their relationships with each other. Colonel de Luce's grief for the wife he lost has led him to the life of a recluse and distanced him from his daughters. Flavia's two sisters, like Flavia, spend their time entertaining themselves with their own interests. Their relationship with Flavia is typical of older sisters—they split their time between torment and apathy, and Flavia fights back with her secret plans of poisonous revenge.

Sometimes you have to wonder how realistic a character as Flavia could be—an 11-year-old that knows the anatomical effects of a dose of carbon tetrachloride. But Bradley doesn't give you time to even consider doubt. You'll immediately jump on board and enjoy the ride.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie won the 2007 Crime Writers' Associate Debut Dagger Award. The second book in Bradley's Flavia de Luce series is due out in 2010. Visit his website at


Salvatore said...

Nice. Sounds like it could be fun. The title made me think it was a southern book, to be honest.

Jill said...

Glad you posted this review. This has been sitting in my to-read pile but I just haven't been feeling it.

I won't give up!

J.T. Oldfield said...

I just got this in the mail today, having won it from Epic Rat. :)

Kari said...

Sal - yes, that would make sense, wouldn't it?

Jill - give it a try! I'll allow you to blame me if you read it and don't like it.

J.T. - what luck!

You know when, every once in a while, you read a book that's just light-hearted fun without being too fluffy and forgettable? That's what this book is.