On the face of it, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the debut novel of Canadian writer Alan Bradley, could hardly have been less promising. The blurb described an eleven-year-old, aristocratic female detective investigating the murder of a man who turns up dead in the vegetable patch of her crumbling country home. It just read like it had the potential for disaster, a sort of golden age, rustic Nancy Drew. No thanks.
I should know better. Really, I should. I have read enough crap with wonderful covers and compelling synopses and enough fabulous books hidden behind dreary illustrations and descriptions. Never judge a...
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is an absolute treat. It is original, clever, entertaining and funny. Bradley, whose biography suggests he did not spend a great deal of time in 1950s rural England where his novel is set, has captured a moment in time perfectly. It is post-War, and a way of life that has served the landed de Luce family well for generations is changing as "modern" life and economic reality knocks on the door of the under-funded country pile.
Eleven-year-old Flavia at times feels as if she is living the entire country's last days of innocence, living in a rural theme park, skipping through meadows, cycling everywhere, scrumping in the orchard. Although there is nothing particularly innocent about Flavia, who maintains a poison laboratory in the basement, runs rings her vain sisters and the faithful retainers and investigates crimes like a pre-pubescent Miss Marple.
She is phenomenally bright, inventive, courageous, curious. Precocious. And put like that she sounds dreadful. Utterly unbearable. Except that she isn't. She is engaging and entertaining company, witty and sharp.
In addition to Flavia, there's a wonderful supporting cast: sisters, servants, yokels, shady visitors to the house. And a great story, equisitely told detailing old jealousies, new greed and the rarest of stamps. Rare enough to kill, and die, for.
Philately and chemistry. Not a combination I could ever imagine being especially appealing. But Bradley really has something. That story-telling star dust that enables him to pull the whole tale together leading the wonderful Flavia through an extraordinary maze of mystery and intrigue and driving the reader to turn those pages in glorious anticipation.
There is just one false note in the book. Flavia is just too much for an eleven-year-old. Too smart. too fearless. Too much. Her age simply didn't ring true. Thirteen perhaps. But not eleven. But quite honestly I was enjoying the book too much to allow that little detail to get in the way. So I adopted two "coping£" strategies. I either didn't think about it or I pretended she was fourteen.
This really is a terrific book, so different to anything I have read recently it felt like being on the most wonderfully relaxing holiday with fresh sea breezes blowing away the cobwebs.
We are promised a Flavia "series". I do hope the promise is kept.
For an interview with Alan Bradley, please click here.