Sunday, August 2, 2009

I'd have scratched his eyes out and sucked the holes

It's a bit difficult to know how to classify Flavia de Luce, the 11 year old heroine of the novel The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. Flavia lives with her widowed, distant father and two older sisters in a stately English home called Buckshaw. When a man who was arguing with her father is subsequently found dead in the back yard, Flavia must investigate the matter to help her father avoid being charged with murder.

Flavia is fortunate to have a fully equipped chemistry lab all to herself at Buckshaw. One of her deceased relatives had suffered a mental breakdown while studying chemistry at Oxford, so his father had built him his own laboratory. Flavia spends most of her time and considerable intelligence on studying and concocting various poisons and potions in the lab.

After her father is arrested on suspicion of having killed the man in the garden, Flavia and her trusty bicycle Gladys make the rounds of the town of Bishop's Lacey to try to find out where the dead man came from. In investigating the mystery, Flavia finds out things which seem to indicate that her father was involved not only in the present death, but possibly in an earlier death as well.

Flavia is a thoroughly enjoyable character, although much, much too advanced in her chemistry and general reading to be a believable 11 year old. I was also unsure, especially at the beginning of the book, if Flavia was a budding (or already fully formed) psychopath. She certainly didn't seem to have "normal" reactions to events (plotting the poisoning of her sister, being tied up and left in the closet by her siblings, being not at all distressed at finding a dead body in the garden, etc.). Throughout most of the story, she appeared quite calm and coolly detached from the events around her, but at odd times she would have emotional reactions. That kept her somewhat human.

The book is also an overall interesting mystery. Flavia gets herself into some sticky situations, but she is always able to find a way out of them. There is another Flavia book in the works, to be published next year.

Final Verdict for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: Three Gherkins, for being an engaging English country house mystery with a unique heroine

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