The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

If you’re looking for a new crime series, do check out Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books, beginning with Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009). I’ll hypothesize that if you’re Canadian, you’ve read the first three when they came out and were gifted the (nicely-timed November-released) fourth book this Christmas, but if you live in Asia, you may not have of Bradley.

Flavia de Luce is eleven years old, and she’s precocious like water is wet. Flavia is Mistress of the Periodic Table, with a special interest in poisons–enough that I’d back her over Vizzini and The Man in Black.  More surprising, perhaps, is her remarkable unsentimentality; in the first three pages,  we find her conducting an irreversible experiment involving acid and her sister’s pearls–which belonged to their dead mother.  And upon discovering a dying man in the cucumber patch, Flavia is frankly delighted, remarking, “This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

If you find preternaturally wise and knowledgeable children irritating rather than endearing, you’ll have to skip this book. The plot is oiled by overheard conversations and improbable coincidences, and Flavia too-conveniently possesses a Spidey-sense of hearing (“…the kind… Father once told me, that allows its owner to hear spider webs clanging like horseshoes against the walls.”) The identity of perpetrator was obvious even to this blogger of little brain, and the post-war British setting is wildly Anglophilic–all stepping stones over meandering rivers and endless mentions of tea; in sum, the book’s appeal hinges entirely upon the protagonist. Now, I have a weakness for precociousness and unsentimentality (when not exhibited by my own child) and so I enjoyed Flavia very much. I also have a weakness for vulnerable protagonists who outwit Authority, and of course, children are the most vulnerable amongst us; I find it utterly satisfying that a young girl should reason out a crime that’s baffled grown-ups.

The plot is wildly farcical, beginning with the discovery of a dead jack snipe with a stamp in its beak delivered as a warning to Colonel de Luce.  (Why not just send a letter marked “private”?) Shortly after, Flavia overhears a conversation between her father and a “caddish”, “oily” voice who calls him Jacko, and reminds him of the suicide of their schoolmaster Mr. Twining many years ago.  All too soon, the possessor of the unfortunate voice is dead, and Flavia’s father is arrested for murder.

Flavia heads to the library (it’s 1950, y’know?) to look up Mr. Twining’s death, and gasp! he turns out to be the librarian’s mother’s brother. And the librarian remembers that one of the boys involved was called … Jacko. So Flavia sets off on her trusty bicycle (named Gladys) to unravel Mr. Twining’s death, to clear her father’s name and find the real murderer, and oh, yes, help out King George along the way.

I liked this book, I did, but somewhere along, found myself wondering why I wasn’t charmed by it when it so obviously set out to charm. And I think my answer lies in my question. I felt that Bradley tries too hard–the characterization lacks finesse, hammering its points home. Here’s a fairly representative paragraph:

” ‘Good morning, Flavia,’ Pemberton said with a  grin. ‘Did you sleep well?’

Did I sleep well? What kind of question was that? Here I was on the terrace, sleep in my eyes, my hair a den of nesting rats and nose running like a trout stream Besides, wasn’t a question about the quality of one’s sleep reserved for those who had spent the night under the same roof? I wasn’t sure; I’d have to look it up in Beeton’s Complete Etiquette for Ladies. Feely had given me a copy for my last birthday, but it was still propping up the short leg of my bed.”

It’s fun, but a little bit of this goes a long way, and Bradley is relentless–everything Flavia says and thinks is laden with significance, and she sometimes verges on caricature, coming across at times as inhuman rather than merely freakish, lacking emotional resonance. I also think the author focuses a bit too much on establishing the setting–the police inspector reminds Flavia of “Douglas Bader, the Spitfire ace, whose photos I had seen in the back issues of The War Illustrated that lay in white drifts in the drawing room.” The doctor is “the spitting image of John Bull”. Flavia is most appealing  when Bradley’s not reminding us she’s clever or British; when she’s kidnapped, for instance, there’s a most enjoyable rumination on her situation.

“Being kidnapped is never quite the way you imagine it will be. In the first place, I had not bitten and scratched my abductor. Nor had I screamed: I had gone quietly along like a lamb to the September slaughter.

The only excuse I can think of is that all my powers were being diverted to feed my racing mind, and that nothing was left over to drive my muscles. When something like this actually happens to you, the kind of rubbish that comes leaping immediately into your head can be astonishing.”

Hopefully, now that he’s established setting and character so firmly in the first installment, Bradley has fine-tuned his prose for the subsequent books. I have the rest of the series on hold at the library, and I’m looking forward to dipping into them–at judicious intervals.

Also, a minor point. Flavia’s mother Harriet is 15 years old in 1930, and her first daughter Ophelia is born in 1933, and Flavia in 1939. But Harriet reads L.M.Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill as a schoolgirl, which is impossible, as Jane was published in 1937. So the years don’t add up. Or am I  missing something terribly obvious?

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4 responses to “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

  1. Yes, I am a Canadian who lives in Asia and has yet to pick these up. I will do now though!

  2. I haven’t read this series yet either; when I first started hearing the interviews with the author, I wasn’t sure they were for me, but so many of my reading friends have been charmed by them that I’m determined to give them a try after all. I’ll be watching for the JofLH references (that was a favourite book of mine as a child)!

  3. JoLH is still a fave of mine :) I searched out the film some years ago, and was rather pleased that Jane’s dad was played by Sam Waterston from Law and Order.