Monday, January 11, 2010

Review: Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

What would you do if you watched someone gasp their last breath in what you were certain was a heinous murder?  In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Flavia de Luce watched in fascination and took exceptional mental notes.

Flavia is not your ordinary 10-year-old, and the de Luce family is not a typical British family, even in 1950.  Flavia has a hint that something odd is occurring in her home that hot, lazy summer, and it has nothing to do with the torture she and her sisters Daphne and Ophelia execute against each other.  It goes beyond Mrs. Mullet's inedible custard pies and Father's obsession with stamps.  It even goes beyond the absent Harriet.

Flavia's summer occupation involves nothing less than King George VI and a 30-year-old murder.

The family discovers a dead jack snape with a postage stamp on its beak left at their door.  After overhearing a conversation she doesn't understand, Flavia wakes after a fitful night and, sensing a disruption in the cucumbers, watches a man die — the same man who had the conversation with her father mere hours before.

Flavia is more curious than frightened, and her youth and inexperience lead her to some conclusions that are not completely thought-out.  However, she keeps her head and conducts her own investigation, sometimes steps before Investigator Hewitt and other times without even a whiff of the constabulary.

Author Alan Bradley is brilliant.  The middle-aged Canadian author has captured the spirit and character of the whip-smart 10-year-old and what life entails for her.  While reading the book, I was transported to Buckshaw, a rambling, crumbling English estate with entire wings for each member of the small family in residence.  I could see and feel Flavia's laboratory and her dusty, musty books. I heard the shoe heels clacking through the expansive halls, the sisters lounging around reading, playing music, mooning over local boys and movie stars.

The characters were charming and utterly appropriate to the story.  I loved Dogger, whose tortured past remains a mystery but whose future appears to continue to offer unflagging devotion to Flavia's father, the Colonel.  I appreciated Mrs. Mullet and her no-nonsense approach to the eccentric de Luces, especially near the end, when she revealed a hint of the true housekeeper that kept Buckshaw afloat for decades.

This is the first of a series, so I look forward to learning more about them and the missing Harriet, who I suspect has a different story than that which was told to her youngest daughter.  I can't wait to see the blossoming relationship between the young detective and and the patient inspector.  I won't mind if Father remains a bit more of a mystery; in his grief, he is more interesting than one would expect.  I trust Bradley's treatment of story and character, and I look forward to my next meeting with this interesting crew.

And all this from a reader who rarely turns to mysteries for entertainment.

What do you think of mysteries?  What are some of your favorites? What draws you to them?  Will you give Bradley's book a gander?

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