I’ve heard many things about Bradley’s series, all of them good. And unfortunately, it took me over a year and a half to pick it up. I wasn’t disappointed.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is an amateur sleuth novel, following the escapades of eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. Flavia lives with her two elder sisters and father in a decaying manor, and she is understandably quirky and a bit eccentric. After a murder occurs in Flavia’s yard, she decides it is her duty to investigate the murder herself.
Sounds simple. But the mystery is pretty complex, involving not only the murder of the mysterious stranger in the cucumber patch, but a murder that occurred thirty years prior — one that Flavia’s own father might have been involved in. Not to mention that there is also theft
There are a lot of things I loved about this book. The first is obviously Flavia. She’s precocious, brilliant, amusing, and passionate girl, and although that’s kind of typical for these kinds of novels, the narration is charming. I also thought Flavia’s love for chemistry was very unique and interesting — as was her particular love of brewing poisons and experimenting on her elder sisters. I also loved her penchant for fibbing, for her ability to charm, for her sharp wit and ability to extract information from people, her investigative skills, and her exuberance and general enthusiasm for life.
I need to take a quick break to gush about the names in this book; I am totally in love with the names Bradley chose for his characters. Horace Bonepenny? Fabulous. Ophelia, Daphne, and Flavia de Luce? A name nerd’s dream. And let’s not get started on the fact that Flavia named her bike Gladys. And — god, every name in this book is brilliant.
My love for the names in this book aside, the writer put in a lot of intriguing hobbies into the book. There’s chemistry, philately, and magic tricks all in one book, all of which are essential to the plot, and the content never feels excessive or overdone. It just feels — quirky and rounded and at every turn there is something interesting to learn about.
I didn’t feel that any character was a stock character. Although some characters were only in the book for a very short amount of time, they all had a real presence, and while I’m sure characters like Dogger or Mrs. Mullet could be fleshed out more, there are also currently two other books in the series, and I’m sure each of these side characters will get their time in the limelight. But even small characters like Dr. Kissing and the dead mother, Harriet, have distinct personalities and flavours. I have to say that I quite loved the Inspector; his relationship with Flavia was certainly amusing, and I’d love to see him more. Flavia’s elder sisters are both not very good sisters (they’re no Cinderella siblings, but they all rag on each other and are horrible to each other — but it’s obvious that beneath all that animosity, there is a loving bond. And Daphne and Ophelia (or Daffy and Feely) are completely different in personality).
The writing is fast-paced while also being intelligent; I felt like I was learning along with Flavia, and also learning about hobbies and subjects that I didn’t know much about or had forgotten about. I never felt that the writer was talking down to the reader, nor did I feel that I was being bombarded by unnecessary information, the way I sometimes do when I read Chuck Palahniuk novels. It’s beautifully crafted with perfect pacing, and there’s never a dull moment. The mysteries have so, so many twists and turns!
My only real critique? The fact that Flavia narrates. She is a brilliant, brilliant child. There’s no doubt about it. But even someone that smart does not speak so beautifully at that age, especially because while Flavia is certainly gifted, she is no genius. Nor is her father. And when they’re both speaking (i.e. Flavia’s narration and the Colonel’s long story about the murder of Twinings) they sometimes have too lovely descriptions. Of course much of the narration feels authentic. But sometimes there are just glimpses of the authorial voice, and when that happens, I get pulled from the story for a second, because I just know that nobody telling a story to their daughter while in prison would say something like “mediocrity … was the great camouflage; the great protective coloring.” It’s too perfect. And sometimes Flavia says things that are a little too poetic and mature for who she is. But this wasn’t enough to be a problem for me — I enjoyed it even despite that.
I’d recommend this book to pretty much anyone. Whimsical plots, characters and language? An eclectic cast of characters? A fun mystery that’s not too light nor too dark, but has elements of both? A tone to satisfy readers of YA fiction and traditional mysteries, and literary fiction? This book’s got it. And I am very excited to read the rest of the series!