the sweetness at the top of the pile…

cover pieThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Delacorte Press (Random House), 2009.

373 pages

In his wickedly brilliant first novel, Debut Dagger Award winner Alan Bradley introduces one of the most singular and engaging heroines in recent fiction: eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison. It is the summer of 1950and a series of inexplicable events has struck Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia’s family calls home. A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. For Flavia, who is both appalled and delighted, life begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw. “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.”

An enthralling mystery, a piercing depiction of class and society, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a masterfully told tale of deceptions and a rich literary delight.  ~back cover.

Just finished this one this morning and was almost late getting the daughter to school. I inhaled the last five chapters. Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is delectable.

The book has been renewed at least once, having picked it up near Halloween, tantalized by the glowing reviews, the “you need to own this” recommendations. I do need to own The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. And I regret having kept pushing it to the bottom of the pile.

The protagonist and first person narrator, Flavia de Luce is incredible. She is wild and independent and absolutely brilliant-minded, if not darkly humored. And the wit with which she’s been written—delightful.

As the book cover says, the eleven year old* Flavia is “an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison.”  She is also the tormenting/tormented youngest sister of two elders, Ophelia (the vain) and Daphne (the bookish). She happens across the role of Detective when she trips over a dead body in the cucumber patch.  Her curious mind is provoked.

Flavia is a natural observer and logician, and perhaps more importantly, a fiercely independent and proactive thinker. To say Flavia is a delightful child would require manufactured sweetness.

Plenty would compare the young girl detective to Nancy Drew or Harriet the Spy, only infinitely naughtier? The closest I could recall was Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes, who is also set in England, is a good detective, has issues with her mother, and is well-read; she doesn’t, however, have Flavia’s vindictive nature which creates plenty of amusing conflict in the story.

Damn the man! And damn old Ruggles too! I’d have to remember when I got home to send them a  jug of pink lemonade, just to show that there were no hard feelings. It was too late in the season for anemones, so anemonin was out of the question. Deadly nightshade, on the other hand, although uncommon, could be found if you knew exactly where to look. (241)

On the whole, Flavia is an original and in the end you would be hard-put to use any other girl detective as a comparative model—nor would Flavia care for you to.

The little man’s pale blue eyes bulged visibly in their sockets.

“Why, it’s only a girl!” he said.

I could have slapped his face. (239)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie could reminisce in other ways. If you like the way James Joyce personifies houses or setting; if you appreciate E.M. Forester’s Estate Novels, his using a House as symbol/character facet, his interrogation of gender roles and Manners. I held a brief consideration of the film Gosford Park, and decided this was impart due to the idea that if they made this novel into a film Clive Owen should play Flavia’s father, and maybe Anna Sophia Robb as Flavia—but she must be too old for it now… Thoughts that threaded after I put down the book. While in the read I am turning pages, chuckling over Flavia’s thoughts and antics.

Flavia isn’t the only great character. All are drawn well. I really have no complaint with the crafting of the story. Actually, I am quite envious of his settings. His descriptors, everything, is colored by Flavia’s perspective/personality. Bradley does not step out of his narrative choice once.

There was a sudden noise behind me and I spun round. In the center of the roof a corpse hung, dangling from a gibbet. I had to fight to keep from crying out.

Like the bound body of a highwayman I had seen in the pages of the Newgate Calendar, the thing was twisting and turning in the sudden breeze. Then, without warning, its belly seemed to explode, and its guts flew up into the air in a twisted and sickening rope of scarlet, white, and blue.

With a loud crack! the entrails unfurled themselves, and suddenly, high above my head, at the top of the pole, the Union Jack was flapping in the wind.

As I recovered from my fright, I saw that the flag was rigged so that it could be raised and lowered from below, perhaps from the porter’s lodge, by an ingenious series of cables and pulleys that terminated in the weatherproof canvas casing. It was this I had mistaken for corpse and gibbet.

I grinned stupidly at my foolishness and edged cautiously closer to the mechanism for a better look. But aside from the mechanical ingenuity of the device, there was little else of interest about it. (234-5).

I’d read a few excerpts to Sean and he voiced the concern as to whether the eleven year old protagonist was convincing. I, too, had worried that Flavia wouldn’t actually be an eleven-year-old girl, but a morbid adult male author in a failed disguise; or at the very least, she would be too gifted to be convincing. However, there are the continually resurfacing issues of having lost her mother before living memory; the difficulties with a withdrawn father; the desire for an affectionate caretaker to make her feel safe/loved…then there is the loveliness of her innocence, her bafflement with romantic relationships,

Ned! The very thought of him had the same effect upon Ophelia as an injection of novocaine. She had taken it into her head that he was the spitting image of Dirk Bogarde, but the only similarity I could see was that both had arms and legs and stacks of brilliantined hair.

And then there is this lovely passage.

“I remembered a piece of sisterly advice, which Feely once gave Daffy and me:

“If ever you are accosted by a man,” she’d said, “kick him in the Casanovas and run like blue blazes!”

Although it had sounded at the time like a useful bit of intelligence, the only problem was that I didn’t know where the Casanovas were located. (305)

She doesn’t get all the literary allusions.

And I found this from an interview with Alan Bradley done by Shots Magazine

“Well, alright,” you might ask, “but what’s a 69 year old man doing writing about an 11 year old girl in 1950’s England?” And it’s a fair question.

The Roman author Seneca once said something like this: “Hang on to your youthful enthusiasms – you’ll be able to use them better when you’re older.’ So to put it briefly, I’m taking his advice. Seneca’s remark affected me so deeply when I first read it in my school days, that I remember writing it down in one of my notebooks, thinking, “Some day, I’m going to need this.”

To me, Flavia embodies that kind of hotly burning flame of our young years: that time of our lives when we’re just starting out: when anything – absolutely anything! – is within our capabilities.

It seemed to me that it would be interesting to have a murder as seen through the eyes of an eleven year old girl. It was something that hadn’t been done much before, and it was exciting to think of the possibilities. A girl of that age, in the 1950’s, would have been virtually invisible. Like Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars, she could go anywhere, see anything, overhear anything, without being noticed – she would be The Invisible Girl.

I was also intrigued by the possibilities of dealing with an unreliable narrator; one whose motives were not always on the up-and-up.

I was never an 11 year old girl, but I was the next best thing: an 11 year old boy, and I had the added advantage of having been close to that that age in the year the first book is set.

When Flavia’s motives were not on the up and up, she made them fairly transparent to the Reader. Strangely for me, though she would be distrusted by the Authorities, she was not unreliable to me, the Reader.  Flavia houses a balance of an incredible imagination and the analytical (if not cynical). It is, of course, helpful to trust the observations of the narrator of a detective in a mystery novel; it would otherwise be worth doubting the detective in a horror fiction. The moment with the corpse/flag was the first moment I caught myself questioning why I was so compelled to believe Flavia—such an easy suspension of disbelief?—or my observations of a now ten-year-old daughter? I think it is the balance of logic and whimsy that Bradley writes into Flavia (indeed celebrates) that makes her trustworthy. She is well-equipped and capable, through the charming and elucidating tales seamlessly woven into the novel.


“He was the spitting image of Dirk Bogarde.” The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is chock full of Cultural and Historical references, popular or no (true or no—I haven’t verified). This is a novel for those who enjoy British History and its Pop Culture of the 1950s and earlier; alongside is a helping of American references as well. Bradley doesn’t make the inclusions dry, but a  sweetened additive.  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie could easily be described as accessible literature; you can follow the allusions or no, but the story is entertaining. One can take the “enthralling mystery” and disregard the “piercing depiction of class and society”—but I wouldn’t, and Bradley doesn’t make a critical read that necessitates Cliff Notes.

Bradley takes an old genre and a slightly older time and infiltrates them with a clever, dangerous character who like her fascination with poisons, is one—or perhaps she is an antidote.

I made the Girl Guide three-eared bunny salute with my fingers. I did not tell him that I was technically no longer a member of that organization, and hadn’t been since I was chucked out for manufacturing ferric hydroxide to earn my Domestic Service badge. no one had seemed to care that it was the antidote for arsenic poisoning. (307)

Even if you are not a fan of the Mystery, the Detective, 1920-50s England, or Classist and/or Gender conversations, but you are a lover of a beautifully rendered descriptions, lovely (if not at many times sinister) characters, a well-met, compelling story with a fantastic flavoring of dry wit, and/or dark humor, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is for you.  And if none of the above applies: add this to your To Be Read pile anyway.

Or I could state it as Carl V. does over at his blog “Stainless Steel Droppings”: “Pardon my French, dear readers, but To Be Read pile be damned, this book needs to find a home with you, immediately!” I should have listened to Carl sooner.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is an engaging read that had me laughing and guessing and turning. And even if I did make a fair guess early on, I was more interested in spending more time with Flavia and with Bradley’s clever wit. Really, the book ended so quickly. I was ready for more. Thank goodness this a Book One.


Check out Carl V.’s review @ Stainless Steel Droppings (and if you are looking for another brilliant book blog to follow? Bookmark while you are there.)


BTW I love the covers.

cover hangmanAlready requested from the Library: The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag: A Flavia de Luce Mystery, Book Two, which came out this past March, again Delacorte Press.

Flavia thinks that her days of crime-solving in the bucolic English hamlet of Bishop’s Lacy are over — and then Rupert Porson has an unfortunate rendezvous with electricity. The beloved puppeteer has had his own strings sizzled, but who’d do such a thing and why? For Flavia, the questions are intriguing enough to make her put aside her chemistry experiments and schemes of vengeance against her insufferable big sisters. Astride Gladys, her trusty bicycle, Flavia sets out from the de Luces’ crumbling family mansion in search of Bishop’s Lacey’s deadliest secrets.

Does the madwoman who lives in Gibbet Wood know more than she’s letting on? What of the vicar’s odd ministrations to the catatonic woman in the dovecote? Then there’s a German pilot obsessed with the Bronte sisters, a reproachful spinster aunt, and even a box of poisoned chocolates. Most troubling of all is Parson’s assistant, the charming but erratic Nialla. All clues point toward a suspicious death years earlier and a case the local constables can’t solve — without Flavia’s help. But in getting so close to who’s secretly pulling the strings of this dance of death, has our precocious heroine finally gotten in way over her head?     ~publisher’s comments.

Can you hear my hands rubbing together? Carl recommends this one, too: his review. (which I followed to find his Sweetness review)

cover mustardAnd coming in February 2011 (Delacorte): A third book in the series:

A Red Herring without Mustard: A Flavia de Luce Mystery .

Award-winning author Alan Bradley returns with another beguiling novel starring the insidiously clever and unflappable eleven-year-old sleuth Flavia de Luce. The precocious chemist with a passion for poisons uncovers a fresh slew of misdeeds in the hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey–mysteries involving a missing tot, a fortune-teller, and a corpse in Flavia’s own backyard.

~publisher’s comments.

* Please note: just because the protagonist is 11, that does not mean this is juvenile fiction…though I couldn’t see why not.  According to Powell’s it is categorized “General/Trade.”

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

8 thoughts on “the sweetness at the top of the pile…

  1. Okay, okay, okay! I’ll read it. For some reason I have needed repeated convincing on this one, even though it is 100% up my alley. I’ll skip the TBR pile and just go see if my library has it. 🙂

  2. Yes, it was Carl’s very review that made me interested in this book, yet I’ve not read it. Now, with yours (and the others from the RIP reviews), I’ll have to check the library or request it for sure.

    Thanks for the exquisite review.

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