Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

In his wickedly brilliant first novel, Debut Dagger Award winner Alan Bradley introduces one of the most singular and engaging heroines in recent fiction: eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison. It is the summer of 1950—and a series of inexplicable events has struck Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia’s family calls home. A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

To Flavia the investigation is the stuff of science: full of possibilities, contradictions, and connections. Soon her father, a man raising his three daughters alone, is seized, accused of murder. And in a police cell, during a violent thunderstorm, Colonel de Luce tells his daughter an astounding story—of a schoolboy friendship turned ugly, of a priceless object that vanished in a bizarre and brazen act of thievery, of a Latin teacher who flung himself to his death from the school’s tower thirty years before. Now Flavia is armed with more than enough knowledge to tie two distant deaths together, to examine new suspects, and begin a search that will lead her all the way to the King of England himself. Of this much the girl is sure: her father is innocent of murder—but protecting her and her sisters from something even worse….

An enthralling mystery, a piercing depiction of class and society, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a masterfully told tale of deceptions—and a rich literary delight.

Oh dear. This is one of the most delightful things I have ever encountered. Flavia de Luce, at age 11 is now officially my favorite literary detective ever. She is completely hilarious, in a slightly unhinged mad scientist kind of way. This book is witty and smart. The plot is fantastic and even though I predicted who the murderer would be about half way through I loved the whole ride. I blame my early prediction on the Agatha Christie obsession I had in my teen years; I'm now a bit of a mystery expert. The murderer is always someone you know, is always connected in some unexpected way to one of the main characters, is never the first person you suspect, and I could go on but it's unfair to Flavia de Luce for me to turn this book review into a treatise on how to spot the murderer in a mystery novel.

There are just too many good things to say about this. I love Flavia's character and how it balances the wisdom of an adult with childish sibling feuds. She's completely brilliant about some things and wholly naive on others. It's a great juxtaposition. Loved all the bits about chemistry, the history (author Alan Bradley is basing all the novels in his Flavia series on a bygone part of life in England - in this one: stamps), and Flavia's hilarious inner monologue. I laughed out loud quite a few times. There's really nothing not to love here. Recommended without hesitation.

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