If you're a mystery reader, sooner or later this year you'll hear about Alan Bradley's crime novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The courage and personality of its main character, and the complicated mystery, has caught the attention of readers. The book won the Debut Dagger Award in 2007, presented by The Crime Writers' Association. Now published in the United States, it's one of the hottest books out there.
Meet Flavia de Luce. She's the eleven-year-old narrator of the story, set in a small English village in 1950. She longs for love from her widowed father, but understands her family doesn't easily show affection. She lives at Buckshaw, a house that has been in the de Luce family for centuries. Her older sisters victimize her, but Flavia is adept at revenge. She has two passions in life, her chemistry lab, and, as she says, "My particular passion was poison." Did I mention that Flavia is brilliant?
When Flavia snoops one night, she only hears part of the argument her father has with a stranger, an argument in which her father says they killed someone. Before she can learn more, Dogger, the family chauffeur turned gardener, drags her away. When she finds a man's body in the garden the next morning, and he dies in front of her, her reaction is typical for the Flavia readers will get to know. "I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life."
When Flavia's father becomes a suspect, she knows she can solve the case, a mystery that may go back to the years when her father was in school. Time after time, she flies off to the village on her trusty bike, Gladys, to ask questions, research at the library, and find answers.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie may not be for every reader. I loved Flavia, her intensity and her grit. At times, she was precocious. At other times, when fighting with her sisters, she was an eleven-year-old who turned from "Flavia the Invisible into Flavia the Holy Terror." And, she was just as ingenious and heroic as any amateur sleuth. Those readers who can't suspend disbelief and read about an intelligent eleven-year-old solving a complicated case, shouldn't pick up the book.
Those readers eager for an original heroine, and a complex, at times, amusing, mystery, will appreciate The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I wouldn't be afraid to give this to readers who loved Harry Potter. There's something about Flavia that reminds me of the lonely Harry. Yes, it's marketed as an adult mystery, but there is no reason other precocious young people won't enjoy reading about Flavia. And, following the success of this one, there will be a sequel. It's almost scary to think about Flavia getting older in the next book. Alan Bradley might not have written this book until he was in his seventies, but for the Canadian author, the first novel is a charm.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. Delacorte Press, ©2009. ISBN 9780385342308 (hardcover), 384p.