The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
9 June, 2010
Can I just say, I loved, loved, LOVED this book. I’d heard many good things about The Sweetness of the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley and it’s sequel The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, with lots of great reviews dotted here and there, and was over the moon when I pounced upon it at my library. Of course, it had been reserved but I kept it back for a few days to read it (sorry!) And boy am I glad I did. Flavia de Luce is a true heroine, all 11 years of her: she’s plucky, intelligent, independant and gives as good as she gets (especially to her two elder sisters Ophelia and Daphne with whom she is perpetually at war). She is the proud master of her very own chemistry lab and an expert in poisons. I’m more an astrophysics person myself but even I was drooling over the perfect lab stocked by Flavia’s science-mad Uncle Tarquin where Einstein and Shaw had once taken tea (separately). What more could you want in a main character?
Bradley has created a delightful universe full of intelligence, mystery and such warmth that I just wanted to bundle myself into Flavia’s world and be a part of it. Some might say all the familiar tropes from the golden age mysteries are there, the crumbling pile, errant but brilliant children, a distant or absent parent, faithful servants, suspicious policemen and dastardly villains, but then you can say they are present in all mysteries, just camouflaged. I was happy to meet all of them, especially the valet/driver/gardener Dogger, who is unable to escape his horrific memories of WWII, with whom Flavia has a tender friendship. It was just really nice to read a book where I liked everyone (regardless of whether they liked each other.)
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie begins with Flavia bickering with her sisters when a dead bird is delivered to their door with it’s beak through a stamp. Flavia’s father is a keen member of the philatelic society and was once embroiled in a school scandal resulting in the death of a master. A mysterious midnight visitor and a corpse in the morning leads to all sorts of mayhem as Mr. de Luce is promptly arrested for murder. To save her father, Flavia hunts for clues and delves into the past uncovering a story of greed, poisonous friendships and the most elusive and prized stamp of all, the Penny Black. And throughout this, we meet all sorts of characters who populate the village of Bishop’s Lacey including Flavia’s trusted bicycle Gladys.
I learned quite a bit of chemistry reading this novel and Flavia’s bookshelf reminded me of some of the books I encountered as a student. Amongst other juicy bits of trivia, I also learnt that the essential plant oil urushiol was used to make lacquer and it clicked that in Japan, we call lacquerware ‘urushi’.
Flavia also comes out with some great one-liners:
‘Seed biscuits and milk! I hated Mrs. Mullet’s seed biscuits the way St. Paul hated sin.’
I can’t wait to read the sequel, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (and there’s promise of six books in the series!), and am even contemplating buying The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie just so I can keep it and read it again and again. I think I love this book too much. Just in case you think it’s all sugar and spice (because I’m gushing too much), Bradley’s novel harks back to the golden age of mystery but with a blanket of darkness and menace. Just how I like it.
I read this as part of the Thriller and Suspense 2010 Challenge .