The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie taunted me from the bookshop shelves, with its attractive cover and intriguing name. I’d never heard of Alan Bradley – and no wonder, at seventy years of age this was his first novel. I didn’t resist for long – afterall, I do tend to judge books by their cover and who could possibly resist something so incredibly quirky?
Bradley’s young heroine is Flavia De Luce, an eleven-year-old with a passion for poisons and a love for chemistry. Despite her young age, Flavia is intelligent, kind and shows a wisdom beyond her years. Unfazed by death and excited by the possibility of inventing a really good poison, she complements her brilliance with a quick-wit that makes her an easy character to adore.
“Next morning I was busy among the flasks and flagons of my chemical laboratory on the top floor of the east wing when Ophelia barged in without so much as a la-di-dah.
‘Where’s my pearl necklace?’
I shrugged. ‘I’m not the keeper of your trinkets.’ “
Flavia lives in her old and somewhat run-down family home, Buckshaw, along with her father and two sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. Her father seems quite distant and inherently “British” but may simply be still grieving over the loss of his wife, Harriet. Ophelia, affectionately known as Feely, has a fondness for mirrors and tends to spend a great amount of time looking into them. Daphne, or Daffy, seldom removes her head from her latest novel, and when she does it is usually to go along with one of the stories Feely has fabricated to upset Flavia.
Flavia has a love/hate relationship with her sisters: desperately wanting them to like her; plotting revenge when they lock her in closets; being miserably jealous, especially of Ophelia, who was old enough when Harriet died that she can remember her properly; and unaware that her sisters are probably equally jealous of her for the resemblance she bears to their late mother.
Colonel de Luce’s old army comrade, Dogger, also lives with the De Luce family, filling the roles of a dozen servants and friend and confidante to lonely Flavia. Flavia has a particularly soft spot for Dogger, and is there to help him when he suffers from his frequent PTSD flashbacks. The live-out cook, Mrs Mullet, comes daily to Buckshaw to terrify the inhabitants with her dreadful cooking, especially her inedible custard pie.
“As I passed the window, I noticed that a slice had been cut from Mrs Mullet’s custard pie. How odd, I thought: it was certainly none of the de Luces who had taken it.”
The mystery of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie begins when a dead bird is left on the doorstep of Buckshaw with a postage stamp impaled on its beak. It seems like an odd thing to leave behind and it certainly shocks her father, who is an avid collector of stamps. Flavia can’t imagine why her father reacts so strongly to the dead bird, and later that night she overhears a heated argument coming from somewhere in the house. Eavesdropping at her father’s study, she hears something that sounds shockingly like a confession of murder.
When Flavia trips over a man dying in the Buckshaw cucumber patch and witnesses his final word, she forgets all about the quarrel she had overheard, and begins investigating on her own as revenge for being dismissed by Inspector Hewitt. But when the police investigation results in her father being the prime suspect, Flavia has an even greater motivation to uncover the truth and clear the Colonel’s name.
There is only one way to describe Flavia De Luce and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: Wickedly delicious.