A Great Treat in the Mystery Genre: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley you will find a new classic in the mystery genre. From the opening paragraph (no small feat!), Bradley brilliantly weaves a web of murder, privilege, and PTSD around the protagonist and sleuth, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. “So,” you may ask, “is she the titular ‘sweetness’ in the story?” Absolutely not. Flavia is not your typical post-war pre-teen Briton. She has a passion for poison—and all things chemistry—that she is able to cultivate in the laboratory of Buckshaw, her family estate in rural England. Her inquisitive and independent nature seems to have been inherited from her late mother rather than her distant, philatelist father.
These skills prove useful when a man dies in the de Luce vegetable garden just hours after a dead bird shows up on the kitchen doorstep with an unusual item in its beak: a postage stamp. Flavia does not sit idly on the sidelines when she worries that Father —whom she had seen arguing with the stranger in his study the evening before—or his doggedly loyal jack-of-all-trades, Dogger, might have been involved. With her own wits and snippets of overheard information from the police, Flavia begins her own line of inquiry. Flying to and fro between Buckshaw and the nearby hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey on her trusty bicycle, Gladys, she begins to unravel this world-class mystery.
The Recipe for an Engrossing Mystery
Where to start: simple. In a small town like Bishop’s Lacey there is only one place for a stranger to seek lodging. But Flavia’s inquiries soon spread throughout the town as it becomes clear this stranger was known by more than just Father. Even Mrs. Mullet, their gossiping cook, has information to help. Nor does she escape Flavia’s suspicion as it may have been her custard pie —detested by all Buckshaw’s residents—that delivered the poison to the victim.
In fact, nobody escapes Flavia’s suspicion except for her two older sisters: seventeen-year-old Ophelia, or “Feely”, and thirteen-year-old Daphne, or “Daffy”. It is not family loyalty that protects them, probably the opposite. Theirs is an amusingly vitriolic relationship. Flavia is outnumbered but not outwitted as they trade barbs and elaborate pranks. Much of the time, however, the older sisters simply provide flavor to the plot by building the family dynamic and a nice touch of comic relief with Feely’s constant preening and Daffy’s bookish distraction. The other members of the household, Father and Dogger, both still suffer from the scars of fighting in the Second World War just five years over. It is this trauma that they carry that most concerns Flavia as Father will show flashes of his former, assertive self when roused and Dogger is known to have spells of confusion…or worse.
Meanwhile, strangers and residents alike are under the scrutiny of Inspector Hewitt. After his initial dismissal of Flavia at the crime scene to “rustle something up” to eat—a dismissal that Flavia did not take kindly to (“What did he take me for…some kind of cowboy?”)—the inspector quickly discerns how competent Flavia is…and also into how much danger she is putting herself. Flavia continues, determinedly avoiding the inspector’s attention while following the trail of clues through dusty libraries and derelict townhomes, candy shops and country churchyards, and even to the police station itself. Here, Inspector Hewitt’s apprehension on Flavia’s behalf becomes very apparent. This is overshadowed by the thrill of a break-through in the case when Father, who has confessed to the murder, opens up to Flavia about his past and pieces begin to fall into place. Father takes Flavia back in time to memories of his boarding school days where his love for stamps began and the various characters that punctuated his rocky career at Greyminster School. It was also during his school days that he learned about the art of magic tricks. Where these two interests meet the mystery really begins.
Now the story enters a new, thrilling, stage as it takes on the new nature of a “cold-case”. And not just a cold-case: an historic, century-old drama involving paupers, princes, and postage stamps. Father lays out all of this history as well as his own while sitting in a cell of the local constabulary (with a nice nod to Gilbert & Sullivan). Part of the story deals with the Ulster Avengers: a pair of unique Penny Black stamps that have been prized ever since they were printed a century before. Father’s part of the story concerns the mysterious events of a botched schoolboy prank involving one of those very same Ulster Avengers while he was at Greyminster.
Flavia immediately begins her investigations at Greyminster School where the mood continues to become more ominous as she digs through the stale and moldy clues of a decades-old crime. After returning home Flavia slowly but inexorably zeros in on the solution to the riddles running through the historic and recent events culminating in the murder at Buckshaw. Like a chemist carefully distilling a particularly difficult compound, Flavia is able to discern the essential elements from distractions or even red herrings.
But the book is too much fun to discover for oneself and any more summary here could spoil that experience. The structure of the narrative is impeccable and Bradley is a master at creating mood and character. It seems that every sentence was created within the whole context of the novel. From the opening words, he uses color, for example, to describe the narrator, Flavia, as much as anything else. This passage from later in the story gives a sense for Bradley’s clever crafting of words: “…the kind of orange you see when the scarlet cap of a Death’s Head mushroom has just begun to go off (p. 108).” Countless other examples further the development of Flavia while simultaneously fleshing out the plot or setting. Flavia herself is a fabulously fun and complex character. Without a mother—or, in many regards, a father—she is lonely despite not being alone. Watching her assert her independence while getting glimpses of how vulnerable she is, one can appreciate Dogger and Hewitt’s protectiveness even more. There are a number of poignant moments when one is reminded of the fragility under her tough skin.
Read the Labels: Warnings
Although this book is accessible and exciting for ages as young as 12, a few caveats should be mentioned. Readers may notice that throughout the story Flavia lies or withholds the truth during her investigations. This may allow for valuable conversation starters determining what her motives are for her deceit at various times. At another point, during Father’s recollections from his school days, he describes an elaborate magic trick which involved racist impersonations of a Chinese man’s speech and mannerisms. The harsh and combative relationship among the sisters could also be difficult for some readers to endure. A short reference to a man being sexually forward with a woman might go over some heads but may also need to be addressed.
Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a gem of a book. Studded throughout this cleverly crafted story are turns of phrase that the reader cannot help but marvel – and often chuckle – at. Any man, woman, girl, or boy will enjoy biking along local roads, perfecting a disguise, and mixing noxious chemicals through the eyes of this spunky and intelligent eleven-year-old girl’s eyes. In Flavia de Luce, Bradley has created a new archetype of crime-solving sleuth. The big question is now: how quickly can one get a hold of the other nine books in this series?