The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley
Doubleday Canada, 292 pages
Flavia de Luce is not your typical eleven-year old girl. She lives in a country house outside the village of Bishop’s Lacey with her distant father and distracted sisters; her mother died ten years ago. Her father spends most of the day worrying about money and thinking about stamps. Her seventeen-year old sister, Ophelia, passes the time by playing the piano, primping in front of the mirror, and thinking about the boys in the village. Her thirteen-year old sister, Daphne, reads classic English literature all day. And Flavia herself is passionately devoted to Chemistry, with a particular interest in poisons, and spends countless hours concocting mystery potions in the laboratory of her country house. Sometimes, when bored or especially irritated by her sisters, she finds practical applications for her knowledge, such as the time she extracted chemicals from poison ivy and injected them into Ophelia’s lipstick. By now, she has become an expert escape artist from all the times her sisters have retaliated by tying her up, throwing her in the wardrobe and locking the door.
One day, the cook opens the kitchen door to find a dead jack snipe with a postage stamp impaled upon its beak. Flavia’s father turns pale and retreats into his study. Flavia later overhears a redheaded stranger allude to a decades-old murder in an attempt to blackmail her father. That night, she wanders out to the garden, finds the mysterious visitor collapsed in the cucumber patch, and watches him die. Flavia alerts the police, and when they arrive, a policeman instructs her to leave the crime scene and go make tea. Annoyed by the policeman’s condescending attitude, Flavia decides that the best way to seek revenge is to solve the mystery first, all by herself.
Hopping on her trusty bicycle Gladys, Flavia pedals over to Bishop’s Lacey to make her own investigations. She pores over old newspapers, talks to the villagers, reads the hotel’s records, and ransacks the stranger’s hotel room in search of evidence. And along the way, she puts her knowledge of poisons to good use.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie follows the structure of a classic English mystery, but its utterly enchanting narrator fills the story with her own darkly comic voice, creating a reading experience best described as Agatha Christie-meets-Edward Gorey. Readers who enjoy this book will be pleased to learn that it is the first volume in a six-part series.