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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a Tasty Mystery

September 20, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Published by Delacorte Press, April 28, 2009)

We are transported to the summer of 1950. Eleven-year-old Flavia DeLuce and her two sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, live isolated lives in Buckshaw, a large, crumbling old British mansion in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. Their mother died when Flavia was a baby, and their taciturn father rattles around the estate poring over his stamp collection. In this aloof, eccentric family, each daughter is an autodidact pursuing her own passions. Ophelia is a gifted pianist who also has a weakness for boys and gazing into mirrors. Daphne is an avid bibliophile. Flavia is a blossoming chemist with a rather disturbing fascination with studying and concocting poisons.

Of course, Flavia’s expertise comes in handy when a dead man mysteriously appears in the garden, catapulting Flavia into the role of amateur sleuth. Only hours before, she heard a man arguing with her father in his study. They mentioned a killing in the distant past. When her father is arrested by the constable, Flavia feels driven to prove his innocence. This, along with her insatiable curiosity and desire to one-up everyone around her, leads her on a quest to unravel the mystery.

The inspector made a note … “That’s quite understandable,” he said. “It must have been rather a shock.”

I brought to mind the image of the stranger lying there in the first light of dawn: the slight growth of whiskers on his chin, strands of his red hair shifting gently on the faint stirrings of the morning breeze, the pallor, the extended leg, the quivering fingers, that last, sucking breath. And that word, blown into my face … “Vale!”

The thrill of it all!

“Yes,” I said, “it was devastating.”

This is a clever, funny novel, full of witty turns of phrase, literary allusions, and cinematic references. At times, it almost felt too heavily laden with cleverness, and it took me a while to completely get into the book. When I did, however, I was swept up in the well crafted mystery. It’s a straightforward whodunnit, following a conventional pattern with few red herrings and many details and twists I didn’t expect. Well done, Alan Bradley!

I was charmed by the quirks of the small English village. It’s brought to life through vivid imagery and characters who, while lightly drawn, are interesting and colorful. There are also serious overtones; we feel the shadow of the unspeakable horrors experienced by men returning from World War II. I was particularly fascinated by Flavia, who was a thoroughly unique protagonist.

This clever, erudite narrator doesn’t speak in the voice of an 11-year-old girl, even a remarkably precocious one. However, swept along by the suspension of disbelief I bring into a mystery, and absorbed in the quirky, Gothic setting, I didn’t mind. And in many ways, she does reflect a child’s curiosity, spirit, and naivety.

She’s also a little disturbing at times, though not much more more than the rest of her family. Anastasia at Birdbrained Book Blog said, in a quote that made me laugh: “Her whole family is weird, but Flavia is a particular shade of weird that reminds me of Willard– like she’s just two degrees and an insult away from becoming a mass murderer.”

If it weren’t for that somewhat Gothic, eccentric nature of the story and characters, and the suspension of disbelief I bring to mysteries and Gothic novels, I might have felt the same way. However, I was drawn in by Flavia’s wit, intelligence, and her balance of reckless curiosity and clear-headedness. And I was occasionally reminded that, underneath it all, she’s a lonely little girl.

Overall, this is a delightful book and a solid murder mystery. I recommend it to readers who enjoy cozy mysteries, period pieces, and eccentric characters. I can guarantee this is an amateur sleuth you won’t quickly forget.

Read More Reviews: The Zen Leaf; Reviews by Lola; Birdbrained Book Blog; Beth Fish Reads; Desert Book Chick; Fyrefly’s Book Blog

16 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2010 11:28 pm

    I somehow missed that specific quote from Anastasia, but it is brilliant… and just a little too true!!! Great review, and glad you enjoyed the book!

  2. September 21, 2010 12:08 am

    The only way I could accept the narrator is by knowing she was MEANT to be unbelievably precocious, which I loved! 😀 Glad to hear you liked it!

    • September 21, 2010 2:30 am

      I think that’s true — that’s part of what I meant with what I said about suspension of disbelief. Clearly this narrator wasn’t meant to be a “real” 11-year-old. And the unbelievable precocity fit the story, somehow.

  3. givingreadingachance permalink
    September 21, 2010 12:24 am

    I know I HAVE to read this. It sounds really good.

  4. September 21, 2010 1:06 am

    I just thought her older sisters were so cruel and abusive that I had a hard time liking the book!

    • September 21, 2010 2:33 am

      The older sisters were vicious, weren’t they? I wonder if the author wrote them this way so Flavia’s character wouldn’t seem too dark. This way he’s offering a reason for her calculating, vengeful side.

  5. She permalink
    September 21, 2010 1:55 am

    I tried to read this last year, and had a hard time getting into it. It was during finals though– maybe that’s why! I think it’s time for another attempt.

  6. September 21, 2010 9:32 pm

    I agree, this is a really clever novel. I love Flavia!

  7. September 22, 2010 12:50 am

    See, I have a much harder time suspending my disbelief in anything but a fantasy– I have no idea why!

    And thank you for quoting/linking to me! I don’t know why I didn’t get the pingback notification; WordPress is acting really weird lately. I eventually found out about your post through the referral links that people come from to visit my blog. D:

  8. September 22, 2010 2:16 am

    Glad you enjoyed. Do you plan to continue with the series?

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