The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley
Reviewed by Peggy McMullen
It's not a severed horse head that shows up in bed but rather a dispatched jack snape left on the kitchen doorstep, a postage stamp affixed to "the long black needle of its bill," that is the ominous missive in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.
Colonel de Luce -- "sucking air noisily up through his nose like a cart horse" -- plucks up the stamp and disappears into his study, leaving the housekeeper to declutter the stoop, and his youngest daughter, clever Flavia, to solve the impending murder. Because, yes, before the next morning is fully dawned at the family's rundown British manor, a body does turn up.
Flavia, in the early morning hours, finds an expiring man among the cucumbers: The stranger "exhaled ... a single word, slowly and a little sadly, directly into my face. 'Vale'..."
Alan Bradley's Flavia is no cosseted 11-year-old of today, needing to be rushed off to trauma counseling. She's a perspicacious child with boundless curiosity:
"I wish I could say my heart was stricken," Flavia says, "but it wasn't. I wish I could say my instinct was to run away, but that would not be true. Instead, I watched in awe, savoring every detail. ..."
It's that impudent, undaunted, sophisticated curiosity that launched the first charming mystery in a planned series by Bradley, all on the strength of a chapter submitted to the Debut Dagger competition in 2007. Bradley won a Dagger award and multi-book deal when one of the judges was captivated by Flavia's character. Her charm continues to mesmerize, the book is now sold in 19 countries and, since its release in the U.S. this spring, has launched onto indie best-seller lists. Locally, it's a staff favorite at Broadway Books and Powell's, and has close to 200 folks signed up waiting for a copy from the Multnomah County Library.
Part of the book's charm is the setting of the English countryside and the family's fading Georgian manor, Buckshaw. It's the summer of 1950, and Flavia and her sisters -- preening Ophelia, 17, and bookish Daphne, 13 -- live quiet, singular, mostly unmonitored lives. Their mother, Harriet, was killed in a mountaineering accident when Flavia was an infant; their father spends most of his days behind closed doors, immersed in his world-class stamp collection.
The three sisters have more of an uneasy truce than any chummy alliance, with many a revenge plotted between the two older sisters and Flavia. One Flavia designs for Ophelia grows from the observation "that a charge of lipstick is precisely the size of a .45 caliber slug" and Flavia's love of chemistry. (The latter is abetted by the massive home chemistry lab of a now-deceased uncle that's been bequeathed to her.)
Flavia, who fears her father's odd ways (and an overheard conversation the night before with the now-deceased) may land him in the pokey, takes her footloose self off to try to solve the murder. She pedals about the countryside on her "ancient BSA" Gladys, tracing the victim to his room at the Thirteen Drakes (and discretely giving his luggage a toss), then moving on to her father's old boys school Greyminster, where Dad has been implicated in a suicide leap from a campus tower 30 years before. Her investigation turns up one lead after another -- much to the chagrin of Inspector Hewitt -- as Flavia puts the "lucky" in "plucky."
It's a charming, fun romp of a mystery, all the better for knowing that this odd little English girl was created by a 70-year-old Canadian man who'd never set foot in Flavia's homeland until he was there to accept the Dagger award for her story. He's completed The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, the second book in the series about Flavia, dubbed The Buckshaw Chronicles. The new book involves the village church and a traveling puppet show, and is scheduled for release in 2010.