Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie by Alan Bradley

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.20 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.77 / 5.00

In this Debut Dagger Award winner, we find ourselves in England in the summer of 1950. Flavia de Luce is the youngest of the three daughters at Buckshaw, the de Luce family mansion. She is only eleven years old, but she has already shown a real flair for chemistry and reads voraciously, so when a dead bird is found on the back doorstep she is not frightened. In fact, she is much more interested in working out why it has a rare postage stamp stuck to its beak. Next day she overhears her father arguing with a stranger and then finds a man dying in the cucumber patch. She witnesses his dying word, “Vale”, but does not know significance of the word.

As the police begin their investigation she does not reveal the man’s last word to them, pursuing her own investigations instead. When her father is arrested for the murder, he relates a bizarre story from his school days that involves priceless stamps, a nasty piece of theft and the untimely death of his Latin master. Convinced that the police will never solve the crime, and prove her father innocent, she tries to find the connections between the murder and a schoolboy prank that led to tragedy thirty years ago. Armed only with her massive intellect, inquisitive nature and her trusty bicycle, Gladys, she begins to unravel a mystery that leads her into great peril.

When we first meet Flavia she is tied up and locked in a closet. This conveys her relationship with her older sisters very neatly, and also allows us to witness her resourcefulness as she escapes from her predicament. She is not your typical eleven-year-old girl in any way that I could detect, although sibling rivalry and bickering is something that is seen in practically all families. The girls’ mother died many years ago in a mountain-climbing accident and their father is very distant, so it seems that Flavia has mostly raised herself. She is very independent and disparaging of her sisters who are not like her at all: so much so that they spent several years insisting that she was adopted. As a sister myself, I understood their relationships completely and it all seemed very reminiscent of my own childhood, although my sister and I are actually quite similar in our tastes and outlook.

One other aspect of Flavia that I really liked, and actually envied, was her access to a fully equipped laboratory and library of scientific texts: I would have loved to have had this when I was eleven! As a born scientist (first word is reported to have been “Why?), I can see a lot of myself in Flavia, and I have to admit that I always was, and still am, as blunt and tactless as she is. I was also exceptionally observant (nickname: Hawkeye) and would notice things that adults found awkward and annoying to explain to me. I cannot claim to have been as bright as her, or as brave, but I really rather wish that I could. All of this meant that I warmed to Flavia very quickly and the first person narrative helped to make her behavior more understandable. Rather than finding her reactions unconvincing for a young girl, we can accept them because we follow her thought processes. I found this very successful and consistent with a girl of her age: a serious, not-interested-in-boys-or-pink-fluffy-stuff girl of her age, that it.

The other members of her family are not drawn in great detail, but this makes sense as we are viewing them through her eyes and they are somewhat peripheral to her world. This is especially true of her father who has never recovered from his wartime experiences and the loss of her mother. He avoids conflict and emotion, retreating into his stamp collection, and rather ignores his children. In his place as parent, Flavia has Dogger, a man who served with her father and who has very bad ‘shell-shock’ as it used to be called (PTSD). He suffers from fits and Flavia seems to be the only person who knows how to deal with them. She is very protective of him and he certainly takes care of her as much as he can, although he struggles with life in general.

Most of the secondary characters are only briefly drawn, again giving us a sense of Flavia’s sense of perspective and priority. She is much more interested in her quest than spending time thinking about the people that she encounters. I particularly loved her responses to the policemen at the scene of the murder, when she is totally disgusted by their attempts to protect her from seeing the dead body. She grumbles and stumps back into the house to get tea for them, without realizing that they think that they are being kind and saving her from the grizzly sight of a corpse. I also liked the fact that the cook knows that nobody in the family likes lemon meringue pie, but she bakes them regularly so that she can take them home to her husband.

The plot proceeds at a brisk pace, with Flavia zooming about the countryside on Gladys, investigating the local library and churchyard and doing a little petty theft in the village inn. All these locations and the associated inhabitants are perfectly drawn and I was very surprised to see that Mr Bradley is not actually English, but Canadian with an English mother. He includes lots of wonderful period detail which helped to make the world seem authentic to me and which was a nice surprise because I so often find that non-British authors make tiny mistakes about English culture or that the changes made for US editions clash with my Englishness. I do have to point out one error though: poison ivy is not found in the UK. I know that the UK edition of the book might include a different plant, so I can forgive this one mistake.

In general, I felt that the plot had a few too many convenient coincidences, but then so do Agatha Christie’s stories, and I think everyone can agree that she was a master at her craft. Indeed, there was a distinct feeling of Ms Christie’s St Mary Mead, the home of Miss Jane Marple, about the setting that I found very enjoyable. It also reminded me very strongly of the works of End Blyton, especially her The Famous Five series, which I read constantly as a child. They have a similar feel of childhood freedom and the ability of youngish teenagers to solve dangerous crimes and defeat serious villains. I imagine Mr Bradley might have read these as a child, as I am sure that his mother would have been familiar with them.

In short, I fell in love with Flavia and her world, which I found authentic and endearingly eccentric. I thought that her family dynamic worked well, providing her with the freedom that she needed to conduct an investigation unimpeded whilst giving her the fierce determination to protect her father. I would recommend this to anyone who likes a little black humor mixed in with their Christie-style murder-mystery.

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