The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Not to be trite, but The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is one of the tastiest reads that I've devoured this year. It's one of those rare books where you'll fret over your desire to gobble it down versus savoring it in small bites. It's a delicious-- okay, I'll stop now. But seriously, it's a great book, you should read it.

The setting is Bishop's Lacey, a small, sleepy English town in 1950. Flavia Sabina Dolores de Luce, eleven, is better at chemistry than most of us can probably ever hope to be. (And the Dolores is a lie. She sometimes fabricates things.) She is our narrator and when asked what her passion is in life, Flavia unhesitatingly says chemistry. She even has her own lab which was originally created by a great-uncle and then used by her mother, who died in Tibet when Flavia was still a baby. It's her sanctuary in her her family's sprawling and somewhat dilapidated manor house where Flavia lives with her reclusive father (Colonel de Luce), two sisters (Ophelia and Daphne, whom she loathes), and Dogger (Colonel de Luce's once-manservant/driver and now gardener with a loose grip on the day-to-day, as he came back from the war a bit shattered).

The novel starts on a seemingly normal day (after a fight with Ophelia, Flavia stole her lipstick, melted it down to mix with the essential oil of poison ivy leaves, and reformed the lipstick using a .45 caliber slug) and then something peculiar happens. The housekeeper opens the kitchen door to discover a dead jack snipe with a stamp impaled on its beak. Flavia's father is visibly shaken and later, Flavia eavesdrops at the keyhole of his study to see and hear him argue with a redheaded man Flavia has never seen in her life. For her quiet philatelist of a father, this is uncommon behavior -- but perhaps more uncommon is when Flavia walks through the cucumber patch in the pre-dawn hours and discovers a body. It is the redheaded man with whom her father had been arguing and he breaths his last word into Flavia's face: "Vale!" Unlike most eleven-year-olds, Flavia does not run in fear: "I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the opposite. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life."

Well, I think you can guess by this point that Flavia is not the kind of girl to simply leave this matter to the authorities, particularly when she calls them and once arriving, they tell her to run along. While the police conduct their investigation (in which her father is the prime suspect), Flavia does some sleuthing of her own. The result is a fantastic journey into her father's less-than-innocent school days, priceless stamps, and magic tricks that go horribly right.

By far, the most delightful part of this novel is the refreshing voice of Flavia, whose steadfast determination and piercing intelligence might be characteristic of a mystery novel detective, but her charm and occasional childish whimsy make for something original and fresh. With her knowledge of poisons and capacity for revenge, she is certainly a dangerous force; though despite her vast knowledge of chemistry and her very adult means of analysis, she is still a child wrapped up in fights with her sisters and desperate to clear her somewhat distant father, for he is the only parent she has left. Flavia also knows something adults tend to forget, which is that the best way to get information is to ask someone, and in a small town, certain people will always know everyone's business. Her search for information takes her all over Bishop's Lacy (on her trusty bicycle, Gladys) and as a result, we are exposed to a delightful cast of small-town characters, who might not always be as smitten with Flavia as the reader, but certainly understand that this is a remarkable young girl who sees far more than anyone else.

When I finished the novel, I rather lamented the fact that the story is so wrapped up in Flavia's family history that a second might be a difficult thing to pull off -- but evidently, Alan Bradley is working on a another Flavia de Luce novel, for which I can only be thankful. Bradley himself is retired from a career in media and television, and this is his first novel (though he did co-author a Sherlock Holmes work). He won the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger Award for this particular tale, so mystery lovers should take note. And even if you are not a mystery lover, I heartily recommend The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I don't think that you'll be disappointed with the remarkably enchanting Flavia de Luce -- and if you love books, I recommend buying this in hardcover, as it's a beautiful little volume, compact and elegant without a dustjacket. Though really, if you're a friend of mine with whom I exchange presents at the holidays, forget everything you've read here -- you'll be getting this novel soon enough as a gift.

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