Friday, March 19, 2010

Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Let me get right to the point: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a 2009 mystery by Alan Bradley, is pretty darn charming. And really, what else could it be, when you have obsessive stamp collectors, a 30-year-old mysterious death, a tiny English hamlet, and a narrator who is an 11-year-old chemistry genius?

Flavia de Luce (I forgot to mention that all the names are amazing), narrates the story from Bishop's Lacey, a small town in England. She lives in Buckshaw, a rambling old mansion complete with man-made lake and island. Precocious and witty, Flavia lives with her older sisters, vain Ophelia and bookish Daphne, and their father, Col. de Luce, who is retired and collects stamps. Rounding out the household are Dogger, a jack-of-all-trades who suffers from PTSD, and Mrs. Mullet, who comes each day to make the family some truly hideous pies.

Notably absent is Harriet de Luce, Flavia's mother. She died in a mountaineering accident when Flavia was three, and she continues to haunt every character in the novel. It isn't a literal haunting, but her presence is everywhere, from her old car that Flavia and the Colonel sit in when they need to think to her untouched sitting room, which serves as a sort-of shrine. But more on her later.

Flavia's life takes an exciting turn the day she finds a dead bird with a stamp impaled on its beak on her doorstep, and she witnesses her father arguing with a strange man. Later that night she hears the strange man's last words as he dies in the family's cucumber patch. Flavia decides to investigate the mystery herself, and she rides her bike all over Bishop's Lacey, making several visits to the archives of the library and interviewing townspeople who met the dead stranger.

As Flavia pieces together her investigation, she learns that her father went to school with the dead man, and that the two were involved in some very shady dealings relating to a missing stamp. This connection leads to her father's arrest, and Flavia goes right to the police station and hears his side of the story. Learning of his innocence fuels her desire to complete the investigation and clear his name. She's one step ahead of the detectives on the case at all times, and while I stayed ahead of Flavia on a few points, the solution was satisfying.

There are flaws here, to be certain, including the writing. I have never seen such an incredible use of similes in my entire life, and some are laughably bad. Some examples:

"Taking care not to jiggle the curtains, I peeked out into the kitchen garden just as the moon obligingly came out from behind a cloud to illuminate the scene, much as it would in a first-rate production of A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"Feely and Daffy were sitting on a flowered divan in the drawing room, wrapped in one another's arms and wailing like air-raid sirens."

"At first Father's unaccustomed words came slowly and hesitantly — jerking into reluctant motion like rusty freight cars on the railway.'

Besides the distracting nature of the constant barrage of comparisons, Bradley needs to do more with Harriet. She is a thoroughly compelling character, in part because her death seems mysterious — she was climbing mountains in Tibet with no one else from her family. As more Flavia de Luce mysteries are on their way, I forsee Bradley delving into her life and influence on her husband and daughters.

Despite its flaws, The Sweetness of the Bottom of the Pie is fun. Read with tea and don't put it down until you finish it.

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