Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Finally, A Mystery I Can Sink My Teeth Into

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce is an expert when it comes to poison. She spies on people, picks locks, and takes other people’s property. She lies to the police. Oh, and did I mention? Flavia de Luce is the heroine in this particular story.

She is also eleven years old.

It’s interesting to me that Alan Bradley, at the age of 70, became a first-time novelist by enlisting an 11-year-old girl as his narrator, and that the tale unfolds in England, a country he had never visited prior to completing the book. Nor was this the book Bradley set out to write; he was in the middle of writing a standard detective novel when Flavia showed up and hijacked the scene. Shortly thereafter, he scrapped that story and started anew.

In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Flavia de Luce discovers a body in her family’s garden. Lacking confidence in the local police, and not squeamish in the least, she sets out to find out what happened before the cops do. Unlike the last book I reviewed, this one plays out more like a traditional mystery, albeit with an unorthodox protagonist. And unlike the one I reviewed before that, the many analogies Bradley peppers his narrative with all make sense. Indeed, they’re often quite reflective of Flavia’s eccentric personality.

It’s certainly entertaining fare, but Bradley does take liberties at times. In a couple of instances he conveniently has Flavia’s memory fail in order to keep certain details a mystery, a technique which likely wouldn’t be as tolerated if the detective character wasn’t a child. Some of the adult characters open up to Flavia, and — surprise! — they share the very information she needs to propel her investigation forward. And precocious though she is, Flavia seems to know much more than an 11-year-old should about all sorts of topics. Perhaps this is because of her high level of intelligence, her copious reading, and the blissful lack of reality shows in 1950, when the story takes place. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was because she was written by a 70-year-old.

The mystery itself isn’t really anything to write home about.1 It has its twists and turns, as well as one or two unexpected moments, but with the clues Bradley provides along the way, the intrepid reader will have it all figured out before the big payoff comes. Nevertheless, it’s enjoyable to follow along as Flavia pieces it all together, because one rarely knows what she’ll do next. That’s also why, when the sequels come out (The Weed that Strings the Handman’s Bag arrives in March), I’ll be transporting myself back to 1950s England for yet another piece of pie.


1 For you youngsters who may not know what this is, ‘writing home’ was something people did before the advent of e-mail. For you youngsters who may not know what that is, ‘e-mail’ was something people did before the advent of texting.

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