Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

She is obsessed with chemistry and poison, she has the hearing of a bat, she is smart, brave, and bold, and she hasn't even hit puberty yet. Meet eleven year old Flavia de Luce, the protagonist of Alan Bradley's first novel. She is a mix of Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, and Harriet the Spy, rolled up into a germaphobic little genius.

Alan Bradley is seventy, of the male persuasion, and not a stranger to the written word. Although this is considered his first novel, he has written Ms. Holmes of Baker Street with William A. S. Sarjeant, a biography about Sherlock Holmes that posits Sherlock was in fact a woman, and The Shoebox Bible about his own childhood. In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie he has created an evocative world in post-war England, complete with an old house outfitted with an extensive chemistry lab, a cook/housekeeper, and a gardener who is a mystery unto himself. Three sisters and their father inhabit the house, the mother having died years before. Her widowed father is a distant philatelist (stamp collector), the oldest sister Ophelia is a budding musician and looking for love, and the middle sister Daphne reads to the exclusion of all else. Flavia spends most of her time in her sanctum sanctorum aka The Chemistry Lab, repeating past chemistry breakthroughs, delving into the world of poisons, and plotting revenge on her tormentors, her two older sisters.

Things get interesting when Flavia comes across a dying man in the cucumber patch outside her window. More fascinated than horrified, she puts her brain to work and sets out to find the murderer. She becomes increasingly desperate to solve the crime as her dysfunctional family is threatened with being torn apart when her father is arrested for the crime.

An intriguing mystery and a precocious protagonist make this a book that is truly pleasurable to read. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Buckshaw with the eccentric De Luce family and look forward to The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag.