Flavia de Luce is no ordinary eleven-year-old. She has an unusual family (two difficult older sisters named Ophelia and Daphne, a distant father, and a mother who died in a mountaineering accident when Flavia was just a baby.) The household staff is peculiar (Mrs. Mullet, who is the worst baker in three counties, and Dogger, who still has Issues from his time in the war.) And Flavia herself is an expert in chemistry, particularly poisons and their antidotes.
Given all of this, it is perhaps no surprise that when a man dies in the cucumber-patch right in front of Flavia’s eyes, her reaction is not horror but interest and delight: she has a mystery to solve! And thus begins Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a fun and original romp through English village life, poisons, philately, and the wild and wooly mind of Flavia de Luce. As the book unfolds, we discover more about Flavia’s family, especially her father. We see inside the many outbuildings of the town library. We follow one red herring and then another, until finally the answer becomes clear. The entire mystery is narrated in Flavia’s unmistakable voice: naive and yet witty, insecure and brash at the same time.
I didn’t think this book was perfect. For one thing, the proofreading was sloppy; I found typos on nearly every other page. But more importantly, I thought it could have used one last edit just to make it smarter. There were a number of things Flavia made reference to, placed special emphasis on, that never showed up again. That toccata by Pietro Domenico Paradisi, for instance, or the fact that when she thinks of rows of stamps she thinks of CaMg (really?). I really, really wanted these tidbits to be clues of some kind, to find their way into the mystery, but they never did. The actual solution seemed a little lackluster to me, a bit far-fetched, both in character and in method. And I also felt that at the end of the book, none of the characters had changed: father, sisters, Dogger, all were the same as they were at the beginning.
That, however, is nit-picking. Overall, I very, very much enjoyed this book, and I would certainly read more of Bradley’s if he came out with another Flavia de Luce mystery. It was well-written, and I thought it was a great deal of fun to speed through the countryside on Gladys the bicycle with a young poisoner like Flavia. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.