The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is set in post-war England. Having fought in the war and mysteriously lost his wife post-war (not the mystery at hand, but one for another day, apparently), Colonel de Luce now presides over his three adolescent daughters, a crumbling ancestral estate, and a stamp collection.
Flavia de Luce—the youngest daughter, all of eleven years old—is a chemistry savant whose “particular passion was poison.” When her father is jailed for the murder of a man Flavia discovered in the garden, she finds a new passion: sleuthing.
“I wish I could say my heart was stricken, but it wasn’t. I wish I could say my instinct was to run away, but that would not be true. Instead I watched in awe, savoring every detail: the fluttering fingers, the almost imperceptible bronze metallic cloudiness that appeared on the skin, as if, before my very eyes, it were being breathed upon by death.
“And then there was utter stillness.
“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.”
Such an appealing premise: a precocious amateur detective with sass and vinegar. Flavia can pick locks! She can climb to the top of a belfry! She knows what sodium nitrite is! To keep things just a bit believable, Flavia is also permitted the occasional bungle: blame it on her youth.
Initially, I fell in love with Flavia’s spiky personality, but as the story wound on, her voice began to grate on me.
I think writing in the first person is one of the hardest feats for an author, because he (or she) is putting all the narrative eggs in one basket. The reader has to feel an affinity for the narrator, who—in a mystery, at least—is required to present all aspects of the case. There can be no second voice; well, unless the first narrator introduces a second narrator, as Bradley allows Flavia to do. In his jail cell, Col. de Luce tells Flavia a critical part of the backstory concerning a boyhood incident at the Greyminster School—a meandering tale of rare stamps, magic tricks, and adolescent bullying. This device felt quite contrived, but by then I’d already guessed the murderer and was losing interest in this mystery that had so much potential. (And, I must add, is so popular!)
I’d hoped Sweetness would be the gateway to another wonderful series, but unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way for me.
This reading adventure began with a mistake, when I plucked The Pigeon Pie Mystery from the library shelf, thinking it was The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. As it happened, the wrong “pie” was more to my liking.