Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce has a flair for chemistry and a love of poisons. When she’s not busy concocting weird and wonderful substances in her laboratory, she’s engaging in guerilla-style battles of the wit with her two older sisters. One day, shortly after she sees a stranger in an argument with her father, Colonel de Luce, she stumbles onto the same man, breathing his last breath, in the cucumber patch. Who is the killer? Is her father, or Dogger, their faithful gardener, involved? Flavia plunges into the mystery with single-minded devotion and gusto.
In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley, it’s definitely Flavia who is at the core of the book’s allure. Incredibly bright for her age, with, at times, a wisdom that’s well beyond her years, she nevertheless embodies a certain childishness that makes for a quirky, not always endearing but definitely interesting character.
Inspector Hewitt burst out laughing.
“There are times, Miss de Luce,” he said, “when you deserve a brass medal. And there are other times when you deserve to be sent to your room with bread and water.”
This sums up Flavia quite well. Inspector Hewitt, the officer in charge of the murder investigation, definitely has his wits about him.
And perhaps that’s another reason why I enjoyed The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie so much. It’s not just that Flavia is such a perfect combination of genius, arrogance, wiliness and childishness; each of the supporting characters spring to life in their own individual ways, too.
Inspector Hewitt, though not the star of the show, is smart, not some dull-witted member of authority throwing his weight about. And I liked Flavia’s sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, both of whom played their roles as Flavia’s adversaries with considerable aplomb. They were exactly how the sisters of someone like Flavia should be, sharing the same deliciously malicious streak of ingenuity and making them quite worthy of being Flavia’s foes.
Even Flavia’s dead mother, Harriet, comes alive, so to speak. We catch glimpses of the woman she was, fiercely independent, flamboyant and fun; she’s very much the kind of person you would envision as the mother of children like Flavia, Ophelia and Daphne.
The mystery itself is complex and engrossing, reaching as it does into the past of Colonel de Luce’s boyhood, and involving rare stamps, and magic tricks. The end had me holding my breath.
This isn’t a fast-paced page turner action/thriller of a novel (although the reader is in for quite a thrilling ride near the end). Instead, it pulls you in right from the very start, and as the characters and the mystery are revealed, you find yourself not wanting to let go.
It was as dark in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily through my nose, fighting desperately to remain calm. I tried counting to ten on every intake of breath, and to eight as I released each one slowly into the darkness. Luckily for me, they had pulled the gag so tightly into my open mouth that my nostrils were left unobstructed, and I was able to draw in one slow lungful after another of the stale, musty air.
And that’s just the first paragraph.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was an enjoyable read; it’s the first in a series starring Flavia de Luce, and I am very much looking forward to Flavia’s next adventures.
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Review copy details: published by Doubleday Canada, 2009, Hardcover, 292 pages