Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bookworm Present Proposition - Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: April 28th, 2009
Format: Hardcover, 374 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
Recommended for: Anglophiles, Mystery Mavens, Card Carrying Members of the Agatha Christie Fan Club, Those Particular Fans of Post War England, Fans of Precocious Heroines
To Buy

At Buckshaw, the ancestral home of the de Luce's, Flavia spends her time lovingly researching poisons and thinking up ways to exact revenge on her two older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. What else can one do with a distant philatelist father interested only in stamps, a dead mother, and sisters more concerned with reading and makeup then their youngest sibling? Add Mrs. Mullet, a cook who keeps plying them with her unwanted custard pies, and Dogger, the shell shocked comrade in arms who saved the Colonel in the war and is now the houses general dogsbody, and you can see why Flavia likes the uncomplicated world of chemistry to that of her fellow man. Lucky for Flavia, the long dead Tarquin de Luce had a fervent love of chemistry equal to hers, and she has inherited his envy inducing laboratory high in the attics of Buckshaw. But their peace is soon to be disturbed, and not by the shrieks of Feely as her pearls are disintegrated by Flavia, or the muffled sounds of Flavia trying to extricate herself from the closest where her sisters imprisoned her... no. Murder is about to strike Buckshaw, foreshadowed by a dead jack snipe with a postage stamp in it's beak.

In the middle of the night, Flavia is woken by her father arguing with a man in his study. She is taken back to bed by Dogger and she blasts music to lull herself to sleep rather than stewing in her discontented and inquisitive mindset, but not before she heard her father say they had murdered a man by the name of Twining twenty years ago. In the early dawn hours she awakens and goes out into the garden to find the intruder dead in the cucumber patch. The authorities are called and the investigation begins. But Flavia has her own investigations to conduct, starting at the public library and the death of this man named Twining. To her trusty steed, her bike Gladys, she races and off she peddles to the library. Which is closed... but soon a librarian approaches. The retired Miss Mountjoy, the bane of the village, has returned to help the current librarian. But her arrival is felicitous, she happens to be the niece of the murdered Twining, who was a teacher at Greyminster, the school Colonel de Luce attended. Twining committed suicide in front of all the students by jumping off the top of the school after a prize Penny Black stamp was taken from the headmaster and destroyed in front of his eyes. Flavia, intrigued, then goes to the inn, assuming that the mystery man had to be staying there. In his room she finds the stamp that was supposedly destroyed... and it's twin! But back at Buckshaw it might be too late... her father has been arrested!

What follows goes back many years into the history of the postal service and the issuance of stamps and their connection to revolutionary factions. But also into the boyhood of Colonel de Luce and his friendship with two very forceful students, Horace Bonepenny and Bob Stanley. Also residing in the past at Greyminster was Twinging, the optimistic teacher who thought creating a conjuring society and a philately club would open the boys minds, never thinking that it would end in his death. There is also the author, Pemberton, whose interest in Buckshaw seems oddly timed. Can Flavia figure this out before Inspector Hewitt and the other detectives? Can she save the day and her dad, or will she herself need saving? Will see even live to see her twelfth birthday?

The only way to describe this book would be the Addams Family meets Eloise. With Flavia being very much like the precocious Eloise, but with a fondness for the macabre that could only be seen by a member of the Addams clan. Bradley has created a great little world with overtones of Christie and Du Maurier, which I'm sure he would gladly embrace, not the least of which is that they were both great storytellers in the cozy genre. He has given us a wonderful mystery that reads like the best of the British whodunits but with a unique narrator in the guise of Flavia. Her family and their estate remind one of a dysfunctional Larkin family, they all have their little quirks and obsessions. Whether it's Flavia and her chemical compounds or Daffy and her books or the Colonel and his stamps, Bradley has created a myriad of interesting folk and their foibles who you can't help but love. But their bizarre personality quirks aren't just their for the sake of creating a semblance of depth in these people, they are integral to the plot and to the solving of the mystery. Only those with the experiences and backgrounds that the de Luce's possess would be able to see the greater picture.

Despite the feelings of Rebecca and the other grand dames of British whodunits, there are times when I did feel a little bit put out. There is occasionally a repetitive and simplistic thought process that Flavia goes through that could have been omitted. This results in the reader sometimes getting ahead of her and sporadically hoping she'd "get on with it". But this is a tendency of cozies, and this is Bradley's first foray into detective fiction. Christie is Christie because of what she contributed as a whole, not just her first attempt. So, if we take that into consideration, the fact that at times the father's reminisces are overly long and seem like just the biggest waste of time in order to establish the exposition, Bradley has so much more to offer besides this exemplary though mildly flawed first attempt. I, as I'm sure many, wait with baited breath for Flavia's return in March! Hoping, of course, she's not to much more mature, but that the writing style is just a hair!


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