Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Review - 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: ★★★★
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 his stamps, a dead mother, and sisters more concerned with reading and makeup then forging sisterly bonds? 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 house's 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 in Buckshaw, where even the china has a story to it. 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 skewered on 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 habitual discontented and inquisitive mindset, but not before she heard her father say he 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 almost dead in the cucumber patch, his last words uttered into Flavia's face. 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, Gladys, her mother's old bicycle that Flavia uses to race off 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 his students by jumping off the top of the school tower after a prize Penny Black stamp was taken from the headmaster and destroyed in front of his eyes. Flavia, intrigued, then goes to the local 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! Can Flavia save the day and her father before Inspector Hewitt and the other detectives? Or will she need saving herself?

When the dearly departed David Thompson from Murder by the Book casually mentioned a new and unique mystery that he thought I'd like I had little inkling that it would be the start of one of my favorite book series. Six years have passed since he sent me that email, five years since I first read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and David died. I can't believe it's been that long, but the sheer joy with which I've devoured the following six volumes attests to the fact that time hasn't stayed still. Flavia de Luce has worked her way into my heart. Part Addams Family, part Eloise, she's precocious but in a way that isn't cloying because it is balanced by her fondness for the macabre.  Bradley's world is populated with overtones of Christie and Du Maurier, which I'm sure he would gladly confirm. 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.  

Though re-reading it all these years later with the sheer number of books I read per year details have become hazy and it was nice to refamiliarize myself with Flavia's origins. The truth is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is rough around the edges. Bradley has matured as a writer over the years to be more polished and to tell Flavia's story in a more assured and competent manner. With his development over the past few years he has definitely secured Flavia's place among the cannon of British whodunits, even if he's Canadian. But here this assurance is lacking and there are times when I was distinctly put out. Flavia waffles between being mature for her age and being very slow on the uptake. This results in her inner monologue occasionally becoming repetitive and simplistic in her deductions when the answer is actually right in front of her. While the mystery isn't really the driving force of Flavia's story, it is hard on the reader when they are so far ahead of Flavia that you start hoping that she'd get on with it already. But then again, this slow style is typical of the cozy genre and for a first outing, it's better than some writers achieve in their entire life. Yes, it might be a little clunky, yes, it's not perfect, but it does lay the groundwork magnificently for a solid series to come.

What really strikes me coming back to the beginning is just how British this series is. It's not just that this story could only happen to this family but also this could only happen in Britain. My love of Lark Rise to Candleford has made me more then a little obsessed with running a small rural post office in Victorian England, and the history of the postal service and the issuance of stamps and the Penny Black and it's connection to revolutionary forces and how it oddly ties into the climax of the movie The Young Victoria; well, the Anglophile in me was doing a happy dance. I find it interesting that in my original review, which I might have liberally borrowed from here, I found the reminisces of Colonel de Luce over long and unnecessary. But the truth is his unburdening in that little jail cell is the core of this book. Not only do we get this postal history but how much more British can a book get than long reminiscences of boys going to boarding school? The halcyon days of Greyminster and Colonel de Luce's mentor, Twining, are the stuff of Waugh and Powell, but here, here they take a deliciously dark twist. These settings, this time period, it just makes you long to dwell in the world, to walk the crumbling Buckshaw estate and wade out to the little folly. It is a world that is gone and we long to recapture, and here it is thanks to Bradley.    

And then there's Dogger. Dogger is a product of this time and this place and he is the heart of this book. Knowing, as I now know, Dogger's full past, seeing the clues, the little crumb trail that Bradley started here makes me realize what a long game he was playing. But it's not just Dogger, it's the way the de Luce's take care of him and even shelter him. They know Dogger is special and they treat him as such and let him do as he does in order to recover. Dogger is also the balancing force to Flavia. Flavia spends so much time talking about death and poisons and how she would eliminate her siblings, she's a bit out there. In fact, some people might be put off by her love of these deadly arts and that she solves the murder by rather gruesome knowledge. Inspector Hewitt doesn't even want her to finish her demonstration on her articulated skeleton Yorick because he's more than a little spooked. Therefore Flavia needs some way to humanize herself. While anyone who was a young girl would attest to the fact that young girls do spend much of their time planing the downfall of their enemies, it might not be so palatable for readers, and here is where Dogger comes in. Flavia helps Dogger however she can. She helps him through his attacks in whatever way he needs, whether it's a helping hand, a cup of tea, a lie down in his bed, or acting as if everything is OK, Flavia just knows what Dogger needs and does it. He humanizes her and she anchors him, they are the true dynamic duo of this book, sorry Gladys.


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