The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a fun, stimulating, and intricate mystery with brief spouts of violent and aggressive tendencies, sibling warfare, and British postal history. This story has a surprisingly young protagonist for what seems like an adult murder mystery book, and that’s what made me pick up the book in the first place (AND the fact that Alan Bradley is Canadian, haha). I can’t wait to read more about Flavia de Luce’s adventures in the next few books.
Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is happiest when she’s reciting various chemical poisons, working in her own chemistry lab in her Buckshaw home, tormenting her two older sisters, or riding her bike (whom she christened “Gladys”). When Flavia overhears a peculiar conversation in the middle of the night and finds a dying man in the garden the next day, she has a suspicion that the two events are somehow related to the dead jack snipe – with a postage stamp on its beak, of all things – that the housekeeper found at their doorstep. Flavia’s stamp-collecting father is being accused of murder, and it’s up to Flavia, with her knowledge of arsenic, carbon tetrachloride, and other poisons and her penchant for snooping around, to prove her father’s innocence and solve the mystery.
I can’t help but compare Flavia, with her brilliance in chemistry and failure to understand familial relationships, to Sherlock Holmes. (This story is also set in 1950, so the sort-of similar time periods also make me want to compare the two!) Flavia is wise beyond her years yet filled with naiveté at times, and this contradiction makes her unpredictable and fascinating as a protagonist; sometimes, I expect her to be an adult and understand everything, and then she reverts back to an eleven-year-old again with eleven-year-old thoughts. I can see why Alan Bradley chose an adult audience for this book though, because there are complex facts and nuances that younger readers probably wouldn’t pick up. And if I were reading this book as a kid, I’d be scared out of my wits at certain scenes – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie surprisingly incorporates some dark and malicious elements for a book with such a young protagonist.
The relationship between Flavia and her family is one that interests me a lot, because Flavia’s sisters seem to be unreasonably antagonistic towards her. This isn’t really explained in the story, maybe because from Flavia’s point of view, this kind of interaction is “normal.” Another interesting character in the story is Dogger, the de Luce’s butler-gardener-handyman-person, whose actions are just as unpredictable as Flavia’s, but whom evokes more sympathy due to his mental instability. There’s a unidirectional quality about the other supporting characters in that those whom have helped Flavia with parts of the mystery disappear into the background once they’ve completed their purpose, but at least these characters are dynamic and memorable during their time in the spotlight.
The mystery came together nicely, and was intricate enough to keep me reading. I especially liked the depth that Bradley went into with the plot, as this is a story that spans generations and time. And for the history nerds out there, there’s quite a bit of history about the British postal system, which also moved the story along. Oh, and speaking of British things: I usually get distracted by the accents (particularly the British ones!) in a book, so I appreciate how Bradley has kept the accents to a minimum in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie so that I could focus on the story instead of trying to narrate everything in a British accent in my head. (Which I have done for some books, shame on me...)
Overall, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie comprises of a young-but-old protagonist with a love of poisons, an intricately woven mystery, and a lot of stamps. If you like murder mysteries with a unique protagonist, or if you’re looking for something slightly Sherlock-esque, give The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie a try!