Alan Bradley walked away from a career in broadcast engineering to become a writer but didn’t produce his first novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, until he turned 70, likely unaware at the time that he was about to embark on a new career at a point when most people are satisfied with retirement. The book, the first in a planned series of five (book four comes out in November), is a murder mystery of sorts, but succeeds because of the appeal of its protagonist, the precocious eleven-year-old amateur chemist (and sleuth) Flavia de Luce.
Flavia is intelligent and quick-witted, and takes no interest in the trappings of young girlhood like dolls, dresses, or makeup (all favorites of my five-year-old), instead comforting herself with her sophisticated home chemistry lab, where she pores over classic texts in the field (such as Henderson’s An Elementary Study of Chemistry) and replicates the experiments of chemistry giants such as Lavoisier … and his wife, who, along with Madame Curie, is one of Flavia’s idols. That comfort is necessary because her family is – although it would be early for the word, as the book is set in 1950 – dysfunctional; her widowed father has completely detached himself from his family, her two older sisters have no use for her and are each wrapped up in their own worlds, and only the gardener, Dogger, seems to care for Flavia in a familial way.
When Flavia discovers a dying man in the cucumber path on her family estate in Buckshaw, a death for which her father will eventually be arrested, she begins working to unlock the mystery in stages: Who was he? Why was he arguing with her father shortly before his death? And did he steal the missing piece of Mrs. Mullet’s custard pie? The case, of course, revolves around poison (Flavia’s particular obsession within chemistry), but also requires a lot of legwork, a lengthy exposition by her father (more interesting for the way he delivers it than for its content), and the inevitable face-to-face confrontation with her prime suspect, putting her in danger that she has to think her way out of.
The resolution of the murder mystery is rather perfunctory – while perhaps realistic given the setting, it’s pretty obvious who killed the stranger and what the motive for the murder was – but Flavia steals the show. Bradley notes in the afterword that she was a secondary character in another novel he was trying to write, and took over the pages to the point where he realized he had to start over and write a book starring her. The Sweetness is written in the first person, and the combination of her adult-like powers of deduction and her childlike energy, with a degree of innocence somewhere in between the two, is infectious, especially when an adult character – often Inspector Hewitt, charged with solving the murder – puts her on the spot and she has to dissemble. Her desire to solve the crime is matched only by her immediate bent toward revenge on anyone who wrongs her, usually one of her sisters, which hatches a minor subplot that lasts for about two-thirds of the book. The one downside to Flavia’s personality is that she is extremely observant, and as the narrator she shares all of these observations with us, often to the detriment of the story at hand.
I rarely recommend reading a book just for a character, but The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie would be an exception. It’s a very quick read; my wife gave me the book as a gift for Christmas – which shows you how far behind I am in my book queue – but I believe she’ll like it more than I did, as she’s a fan of what I’d call the “light murder” genre. It will not satisfy anyone looking to solve a difficult puzzle, but if you can step back and just enjoy Flavia’s effervescent character, you’ll find it worth the time.