A while ago I posted about impulse buying Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie from our local grocery store. The cover is what got me first, but also I hadn’t delved into a mystery in eons, though I can’t think of why. Growing up I swallowed mystery novels whole, from Encylopedia Brown, to Trixie Belden, to Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Three Investigators, to Agatha Christie and others.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in a series of six mysteries (the second book, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, was just released), and is Alan Bradley’s first novel. With only fifteen pages, Bradley attracted Doubleday and now has several other publishers on board for the series. Those same fifteen pages, all he’d written at the time, won him the acclaimed British Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger Award, and the book has gone on to win many other accolades since.
Now 70 and residing in Malta, where my parents live (had I the cash on hand and the free time, I’d visit my parents and have a chat with him! He’s actually on beautiful Gozo, Malta’s sister island), Bradley has previously authored two non-fiction books—the controversial Ms. Holmes of Baker Street (which apparently suggests Sherlock Holmes was a woman!), and a memoir called The Shoebox Bible. After reading Sweetness and feeling a sort of inexplicable kinship with Bradley, I’m sure I’ll read at least his memoir.
Literature is blessedly speckled with headstrong, intelligent, and spunky young girls who are both brilliant and hilarious, and I can’t tell you how much this thrills me. (Another debut novel that promises such a character is Mathilda Savitch, by Viktor Lodato. It’s on my wish list!) But none I can recall, from Harriet the Spy to Nancy Drew, compares with the clever, imaginative, and irresistibly lovable eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an “aspiring chemist with a passion for poison,” who possesses a level-headedness that shames me and a unique way with words (not to mention, though I’m just about to, her own fan page!). Very soon after I began reading, I was laughing aloud, admiring the turns of phrases and original similes, and thoroughly enjoying our narrator’s extraordinarily mature yet believable voice. At the same time as Flavia is wise beyond her years, Bradley reminds us of our young character’s age with incidences of sibling rivalry, getting into trouble, adventures with her “sidekick” bicycle (affectionately named Gladys), and poignant vulnerability.
Although I thought the mystery well set up, I admit there were several times I was pulled out of the story, being for some reason hyperaware of the author behind the writing. This had nothing to do with Flavia possessing knowledge and a vocabulary beyond her years: I fully accepted that, since her background, independence, and two “weird sisters” lent to the story in this respect, and I very much enjoyed learning from her about chemical compounds and their effects. I think it may have been the fact that I felt things sometimes a tiny bit contrived, as they can be in mysteries. Things might unravel just a little too neatly, or the investigator comes far too easily to conclusions that seem to come out of nowhere. On the other hand, this may have been purposeful: there were indeed times when I felt, along with Flavia, sure of myself in deducing what was going on only to be pleasantly surprised.
I was thrilled, because of my love of England, that the book was set there, in a small village called Bishop’s Lacey,which reminded me of several places I visited in North Yorkshire last year. The particularly English vocabulary and expressions made me smile, and although it is possible for this story to be placed elsewhere, even in Canada, something about it being set in 1950s England gave the novel a distinct flavour that worked very well in terms of history, atmosphere, characterization, and of course subject, since the mystery centres on two valuable English stamps, particularly the Penny Black.
Another thing I very much enjoyed was that the novel was cleverly spotted with all sorts of vagueish literary and cultural references I actually got, endearing me all the more to the gloriously well-educated Flavia (and the author!) but also making me feel quite proud of myself, of course.
I’ve already sung Sweetness‘s praises to several friends, and I’ll sing them here as well. This is a first novel worthy of the attention it’s commanded by being memorable and sweet, intriguing and funny. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, I have to say, is deliciously rich.