Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. It’s a bit tricky to write a crime fiction series that features a young protagonist. Young people don’t have the maturity that adults presumably do, and they don’t have the privileges that adults do. So writing stories in which they find out the truth about crimes can be challenging. Creating a young sleuth who’s credible, yet has interesting layers, is also an issue. And yet, there are some very well-regarded series ‘starring’ young protagonists. Let’s take a closer look at one today and turn the spotlight on The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the first of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels.
The real action in the story begins when a dead jack snipe with a postage stamp impaled on it is found on the back doorstep of Buckshaw, the de Luce family’s home. What bothers eleven-year-old Flavia more than the bird itself (although she’s curious about that) is her father’s reaction of fear (or is it something else?). The next night, she overhears a loud quarrel between her father and a red-haired stranger who’s come to the house. It sounds like a very ominous conversation, but before Flavia can make any sense of it, her father’s factotum Arthur Dogger catches her eavesdropping and hustles her away.
The next morning, Flavia goes outside only to discover the body of the red-haired stranger in the family’s cucumber patch. The man says one word – vale – and then dies. Flavia alerts Dogger and then calls the police. Inspector Hewitt takes the case and begins to investigate.
It’s not long before Flavia’s father Colonel de Luce comes under direct suspicion. For one thing, there’s the quarrel. For another, he can’t reliably account for his time. And as it turns out, he has a history with the dead man. Flavia may still be a child, but she’s observant enough to know that her father’s in trouble. What’s more, she’s convinced that he didn’t kill anyone. So she decides to find out who the killer is.
She starts with a clue that she overheard during the argument and begins to trace the dead stranger. And slowly, bit by bit, she finds out about the history that led to the crime, and she discovers who the dead man is.
In the meantime, Inspector Hewitt is no happier arresting Colonel de Luce than Flavia is about it. But the evidence is what it is, and de Luce isn’t doing much in the way of defending himself. He’s also concerned about Flavia’s safety as she gets closer to the truth. And she does get into her share of danger. Still, she also finds out who really killed the stranger and why.
This is a ‘whodunit,’ with the innovation that the sleuth is only eleven years old. But although she’s a child, Flavia has several resources at her disposal. She is passionate about chemistry, and without spoiling the story, I can say that her knowledge of chemistry turns out to be helpful. She knows the area very well, and can often slip around with calling a lot of attention to herself. Flavia may not be old enough to drive, but her trusty bicycle Gladys gets her where she needs to go.
Because the story is told in first person, from Flavia’s point of view, we do learn a great deal about her. She is the youngest de Luce, perpetually fighting with her two older sisters Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy.’ Readers who grew up with sisters will understand the family dynamics. The sisters are always playing nasty tricks on each other, and their relationships form a thread that runs through the story.
In some ways, Flavia’s mature for her age. She’s very well-read and skilled in chemistry. Still, she doesn’t have an adult’s maturity or perception, so there are several places in the novel where she makes mistakes or misjudges situations because of her youth. She also hasn’t quite learned that most people are not ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and is still sorting out ‘shades of grey’ in the people she knows. Readers who prefer their fictional young people to ‘act their age’ will appreciate this.
Flavia also has a witty sense of observation. Here, for instance, are her thoughts about the retired local librarian who occasionally ‘fills in.’
‘‘Yes?’ she said, peering over her spectacles. They teach them how to do that at the Royal Academy of Library Science. …
Miss Mountjoy! The retired Miss Mountjoy! I had heard tales about “Miss Mountjoy and the Reign of Terror.” She had been Librarian-in-Chief of the Bishop’s Lacey Free Library when Noah was a sailor. All sweetness on the outside, but on the inside, “The Palace of Malice.” Or so I’d been told. (Mrs. Mullet [the de Luces’ housekeeper] again, who reads detective novels.) The villagers still held novenas to pray she wouldn’t come out of retirement.’
Flavia is also fairly good at talking herself out of situations, and is not shy about taking advantage of adult condescension.
The novel takes place in the early 1950s, in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. It’s a context that anyone who grew up in a post-war English village would find familiar. Everyone knows everyone, and life revolves around doing the day’s shopping, occasional visits to the library (when it’s open) and Church on Sunday. While the de Luce family is by no means poor, wartime shortages are still a fact of life, and there isn’t a lot to spare.
The solution to the mystery lies in the past, so Flavia has to do some digging in old newspaper clippings and so on. Once she discovers the past event that led to the murder, she’s able to follow the proverbial trail to the killer.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a 1950s-style ‘whodunit’ featuring a young, intelligent, observant sleuth. It takes place against a distinctive post-war village backdrop and introduces some ‘regulars’ that fans of the series have come to like. But what’s your view? Have you read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 16 March/Tuesday 17 March – Through the Cracks – Honey Brown
Monday 23 March/24 March – The Nameless Dead – Brian McGilloway
Monday 30 March/31 March – The Circular Staircase – Mary Roberts Rinehart