The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley begins when Flavia de Luce, age 11 and already a skilled though unrecognized chemist who specializes and revels in the science of poisons, discovers a murdered man in her family’s cucumber patch. With his last breath, he whispers the single word “Vale!” and dies. Having a fairly prosaic life, beyond the chemistry experiments she performs, Flavia decides to ride her trusty bicycle around town to solve the mystery.
Flavia comes from a dysfunctional family, with her mother killed in a mountain climbing accident when Flavia was a year old, a reclusive father who cares more about his stamp collection than his daughters, a 17-year-old sister who spends her time thinking and talking only about boys, and a 14-year-old sister who lives for and practically inside her adventure books. So Flavia has grown up mostly under the care of the cook and the gardener. No one then seems to notice Flavia’s absence when she goes out sleuthing until the police come and arrest her father for the murder. Flavia’s determination to investigate changes from that of the fun of inquiry to the desire to free her father.
This book is unique in having a child as the narrator and detective without being a children’s story. Flavia speaks like a grown-up most of the time, but we are reminded of her age at times, such as when she performs the experiment of spiking her oldest sister’s lipstick with poison ivy. Often, Flavia is able to analyze clues in a logical manner while still passing under people’s radar because they do not suspect a child of doing so. She proceeds in a logical manner of investigating, visiting the library, the local inn, and other places related to the victim’s past. I really sympathized with Flavia’s frustration over the library’s being closed.
In an interview on Amazon about this, his first fictional book, published after the age of 70, author Bradley explains, “Flavia walked onto the page of another book I was writing, and simply hijacked the story.” This embodies the very nature of the main character and narrator of this book. I found Flavia to be quite delightful and enjoyed her character itself as the best thing about this book. The plot, however, also has some creative strengths. It builds up around the topic of stamp collecting, both educating the reader about the arcane hobby and developing a full back story about stamps.
Jane Entwistle performs the audio version of this book. She does a good job of creating the voice of this precocious young narrator. Because of the unusual characteristics of Flavia, being young in age, mature in mind, and immature in certain elements of personal life, Entwistle must have found the book a challenge to narrate, but she tackles the job with panache.
I bought The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie on a whim, having spotted it randomly on Audible, but I am certainly glad I did because it has so many creative and clever aspects to recommend it that I can’t get into all of them here. I will just say that I highly recommend this book to anyone and give it five stars!
To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.