The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie is a mystery set in a 1950 British village. However, the mystery, while interesting, soon fades into the background.
You see, very soon—like two pages into the story soon—Flavia de Luce, the chemistry-loving eleven year-old heroine of the story, grabs hold of your attention, giving it a good tug or two along the way to make sure you haven’t strayed. Off she saunters, dragging you along with her as she conducts various experiments, one of which is to confirm the effects of mixing poison ivy with lipstick (the result is “raw red” lips and the reaction time is about 96 hours—in case you were wondering).
She is the one who keeps her wits about when Colonel de Luce, father to Flavia and her two sisters, is taken into custody as a murder suspect while “The Weird Sisters (one of whom will very soon have “raw red” lips ) were still going at it in the drawing room, their voices rising and falling between notes of anger and grief.”
Lest I make Flavia sound twee or overtly quirky, I should mention that while she is really very smart, her mother whom she calls “Harriet” died when she was a baby, her sisters are at constant war with her, and her father is lost in his own world of stamps and philately.
Then again, here is Miss Flavia, in her own words, as she comes upon a body that has just exhaled its last breath into her face:
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 in my entire life.
Apart from Flavia, I really enjoyed the whole atmosphere of the story. The setting lends itself to a quiet pace—in keeping with the fact that our detective is a eleven year old heroine whose only mode of pacing about is a rusty old bicycle called Gladys—while still managing to pack quite a bit of action within its locale. I liked the bucolic descriptions and the accompanying eccentric characters (I’m hoping for a story featuring the haroo-bellowing Maximilian Brock).
The mystery itself isn’t exactly crackerjack but it doesn’t really matter. In other words, Alan Bradley could have written in any genre he wanted—a fantasy, a steampunk, a romance (ha! I wonder what a romance featuring Flavia de Luce would look like!) or literay fiction. It would have worked so long as it featured Flavia de Luce. I would be very interested in finding out which came first in this case—the character or the story.