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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce, the eleven-year-old protagonist in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, is all kinds of adorable. Especially when she's extolling the virtues of chemistry or using her precocious knowledge of balanced chemical equations to poison one of her sisters. (Poisoned lipstick, not lethal, revenge in an ongoing prank war.) The setting is 1950 in a picture-perfect English village, so cue up the usual quirky, sometimes rambling plot that typifies this kind of cozy mystery. Flavia lives in a sprawling mansion with her father, two sisters, and their handy-man-gardener.

The obligatory dead body arrives in the wee hours of the morning, when Flavia, hearing a peculiar noise, goes out to the vegetable garden and finds a dying man in the cucumbers. Flavia, being Flavia, isn't fazed by man's death, but is instead fascinated. (Me, always the gardener, well I'm thinking, "But what about the cucumbers? Won't somebody think of the cukes?") The stiff coincides with a peculiar incident the day before, when their housekeeper found a dead bird on the kitchen doorstep. The bird had a postage stamp impaled on its beak; an interesting coincidence since Flavia's father is an avid stamp collector.

Flavia immediately begins sleuthing, but her amateur detecting becomes more urgent when the police arrest her father for the murder. Especially problematic because he is Flavia and her siblings' only remaining parent, mom having passed years before. (Fiction, like Disney, is lethal on mothers.)

The strength and the weakness of the novel is Flavia. She's brilliant and dryly funny (at one point comparing her sister to a "disoriented bandicoot"). Sometimes too brilliant; sometimes unbelievably so, her thought processes sounding almost elderly. And yet, for all those smarts, she ignores what are clearly very important clues. This wouldn't be an issue if, right after dismissing one detail, she didn't make a Sherlock Holmesian leap of logic regarding another aspect of the case. Obviously, it's easier for the reader to see the big picture, but there were a couple of situations where Flavia missed or disregarded details that practically had flashing lights and the words, "IMPORTANT CLUE HERE" emblazoned on them.

If, however, Flavia's lack of internal consistency can be ignored, then she is a delightful guide to the quaint little world in which she resides. She's brave and bold, never hesitating to confront a suspect or nose about (trespass) in order to ferret out clues. The novel's secondary characters aren't deeply developed, but the various personalities that populate the village are distinctive enough to give the novel a sense of place. The place is England, so there's rain, and more rain, hedgerows, narrow lanes, stiff upper lips, people with names like Flavia, and churches with vicars.

Recommended to fans of cozy mysteries with quirky protagonists set in archetypal English villages.