In The Spotlight: Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

>In The Spotlight: Ellery Queen's The Fourth Side of the TriangleHello, All

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

30 Comments

Filed under Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

30 responses to “In The Spotlight: Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

  1. What a fascinating, although as you say, challenging choice of protagonist. Somehow I can see it working better due to the era that the story is set in, before policing became so high tec and observations were key to solving crime.

    • Cleo – I think you’ve a very good point there. The era really does play an important role in the way the story works and in the success of Flavia as a sleuth. Hmmm…now I think of it, the other pre-teen protagonists I can think of quickly also did their sleuthing before the modern, high-tech age. It might very well not be successful in a contemporary setting – well, not without a very, very deft hand.

  2. Sounds great Margot – I must try these as I keep hearing such good things. Does it matter about the order in which they are read?

    • Sergio – I think this is a good series (although I’ve never known of a series that works for everyone!). I think it does help to read the stories in order, chiefly because of a story arc that I don’t want to spoil. But even if you can’t, I recommend the books.

  3. Kay

    We read this book in my mystery group several years ago. It was one of those that almost everyone liked and some loved dearly. Many members still read the series. Nice choice for today.

    • Thanks, Kay. It is, I think, a really well-done series. You’re right too that it’s very popular. It’s also (and this is one of the things I really like about it!) innovative. You just don’t see many protagonists around like Flavia,and respect Bradley for creating her and her world. And she does have a worldwide fan base.

  4. Another great spotlight, Margot! I’ve heard so many people praise these books – in fact, I can’t remember ever seeing anyone give them a negative review. And yet – I just can’t deal with the idea of an 11-year-old crimebuster, I’m afraid. So for once you haven’t tempted me… 😉

    • Not even if there were a picture of Mr. Darcy on the cover, FictionFan? 😉 – In all seriousness, I don’t think any book is for everyone. People’s tastes and so on vary too much for that. And you’re not the only one who just couldn’t deal with an eleven-year-old sleuth. If you do ever get adventurous and decide to give it a go, I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

  5. I have really liked most of the books in this series (except for the last two), and it is one of the few series I have kept up with as it comes out. I think Bradley has done very well with his premise. Yet I can understand why some would not particularly care for a young sleuth like this. Great overview, Margot.

    • Thanks, Tracy. I think it really is a consistently good series, and yes, Bradley handles the premise quite well. And honestly, when I first started reading the novels, I wasn’t sure I’d like them.

  6. I did read this one, and had a kind of strange reaction to it. I appreciated the setting and the history and the plot. But I couldn’t get involved with any of the people. All of the de Luces left me cold.

    • ChaCha1 – I think Bradley does do a fine job of depicting time and place. But no character (or set of characters) is for everyone. It’s good to know what you thought of it.

  7. So these are adult books, not books for younger people? I’ve heard this title mentioned – which is great, and sticks in the mind – and I do love books set in the recent past, but it might all be a bit Famous Five for me…

    • Crimeworm – I’ve always seen these as books for adults. Still, you have a good point that having a younger protagonist can change the tone andof a story so that it may not ‘feel’ like a book intended for adults. It’s one of those series that doesn’t allow for an easy label, actually. I’m glad you mentioned the title, as I think Bradley does a great job with titles. Would it be a bit Famous Five? Everyone’s different about that sort of thing. I didn’t think so, but that’s just my personal reaction. If you do take a risk and try it, I’ll be interested in what you think.

      • I may well give it a bash, as I keep hearing that title everywhere! It IS a great job, title-wise, as it’s so memorable – like The Abrupt Physics Of Dying, which I’m reading at the moment. I picked out two books in the second hand shop earlier, an SJ Bolton and a James Oswald, and I could not for the life of me remember if I had them as the titles were so bland (turns out I have one – they put them by for me so I could check!) Some crime fiction fan had clearly had a clear-out as there was almost all the Bosch books, plus most of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Holes – for 50p each! I’d have bought all the Bosch books for a re-read, except there’d have been a real-life murder if I arrived home with them lol! (Might get one or two of the early ones when I go back tomorrow – take my tote bag; hides a multitude of book sins!)

        • Oh, Crimeworm, that sounds like a real windfall!! Second-hand shops are some of the best places to find treasures like that. Of course as you say, there’s the matter of bringing them home afterwards… Still, how nice for you and yes, tote bags are great for ‘just one more book – oh, well, maybe that one as well.’
           
          You make a good point about titles, too. When a title stands out, it is easier to remember the book, or look for it if one’s not read it yet. And the titles of Bradley’s books are really well-thought-out, I think.

  8. Margot, another great spotlight. I love the character of Flavia. She is just a fun character and the author’s style of writing pulls you in quickly. I haven’t read this book in the series, but it’s on my TBR list. I listened to AS CHIMNEY SWEEPERS COME TO DUST and loved it.

    • Thanks, Mason 🙂 – And I agree that Flavia is a great character. She’s interesting and I like her independence. When/if you do get to this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it .

  9. dkent

    I always recommend the Flavia mysteries. They have a surprising emotional and intellectual depth to them, even with the young narrator.

    Flavia’s family, particularly her father, constantly fail Flavia despite her desperate need for love, which breaks my heart, but those family failures also allow Flavia to lark about the countryside on Gladys solving mysteries.

    • DKent – You’re right that there’s more to these stories than just a kid riding around on a bicycle. It is hard to see how isolated Flavia sometimes feels, but as you say, that also is liberating in a way. She can come and go more easily that way. And there are depths both to the stories and to Flavia’s character that are nicely drawn in.

  10. I’ve read a couple of the books in the series (one I found at a local library, the other I bought on your recommendation) and I really enjoyed them, although I too had some doubts in the beginning. It’s a little bit like Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe series – some love them, some hate them. I personally like both of these in doses – which means I wouldn’t read all of them in one go.

    • Marina Sofia – Interesting comparison! Both series are unusual for crime series, but that doesn’t (I think) detract from them as good stories. In fact, I like it that there are series like them out there; sometimes they exactly fit the bill.

  11. Patti Abbott

    I did read it but although it had many good things about it, it felt like too much of an attempt to recapture the past. And I am not fond of prodigies as detectives. Also why (gasp!) I don’t much like Sherlock, Precious or Hercule. I like my mysteries solved by footwork more than brainwork, I guess.

    • Patti – It’s interesting how characters strike people differently. There’s certainly a sense of nostalgia about the series, since the stories take place in what’s often seen as a more innocent time (Whether it really was or not is another question!). And if the main character doesn’t appeal, then I can see why the series didn’t sweep you away.

  12. If I saw this title in a bookstore I would never thing it was about a murder. You really should write blurbs as a side business. You make them all sound sooooo good!

  13. Col

    Another author I have been neglecting on the TBR pile – not enough hours in the day!

  14. Absolutely love Flavia. The setting & her family are just great. When someone recommended this series to me a few years ago, I was of the same mind as others – didn’t think that I would enjoy a book that revolved around a child sleuth.
    Well I was wrong…………she’s intelligent, funny & courageous. The mystery itself, never lags & I learned a few things along the way.
    A very enjoyable series, one of my must reads along with anything by Ann Cleeves & Tana French.
    Always look forward to your Spotlight reviews Margot 🙂

    • Thank you very much, Anne 🙂 – And I know just what you mean about initial reactions. When the series first came out, I was not sure what I’d think. I didn’t want to be judgemental, but at the same time, didn’t think a young sleuth would be for me. But I’ve come to like it very much. And yes, Ann Cleeves is fantastic – love her series. And some of Tana French’s work is great too (Must spotlight her work at some point – thanks for the nudge).

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