________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 40. . . .June 17, 2011.


The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

Alan Bradley.
Toronto, ON: Anchor Canada/Random House of Canada, 2010.
373 pp., pbk., $19.95.
ISBN 978-0-385-66583-4.

Grades 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.





It was black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily through my nose, fighting desperately to remain calm. I tried counting to ten on every intake of breath, and to eight as I released each one slowly into the darkness. Luckily for me, they had pulled the gag so tightly into my open mouth that my nostrils were left unobstructed, and I was able to draw in one slow lungful after another of the stale, musty air.

I tried hooking my fingernails under the silk scarf that bound my hands behind me, but since I always bit them to the quick, there was nothing to catch. Jolly good luck then that I’d remembered to put my fingertips together, using them as ten firm little bases to press my palms apart as they had pulled the knots tight.

Now I rotated my wrists, squeezing them together until I felt a bit of slack, using my thumbs to work the silk down until the knots were between my palms -- then my fingers. If they had been bright enough to think of tying my thumbs together, I should never have escaped. What utter morons they were.

With my hands free at last, I made short work of the gag.

Now for the door. But first, to be sure they were not lying in wait for me, I squatted and peered out through the keyhole at the attic. Thank heavens they had taken the key away with them. There was no one in sight . . . the coast was clear.

Reaching above my head at the back of the closet, I unscrewed one of the wire coat hooks from its mounting board. By sticking its curved wing into the keyhole and levering the other end, I was able to form an L-shaped hook which I poked into the depths of the ancient lock. A bit of judicious fishing and fiddling yielded a gratifying click. It was almost too easy. The door swung open and I was free.

Remember this scene as it will be re-played later in the book, albeit under much more sinister circumstances than being locked in a clothes closet by one’s two older sisters. This daring escape has been executed by Flavia de Luce, an 11-year-old whose preferred past-time is playing with compounds in the laboratory located on the top floor of the east wing of the family home, Buckshaw, a splendid Georgian building constructed to replace its Elizabethan forbear. As might be expected, this old English family has its share of eccentric forbears, and the lab was built to provide solace to one Tarquin de Luce, who returned home following “a sensational mental breakdown”. . . “Tar’s indulgent father, solicitous of the lad’s uncertain health, had spared no expense in outfitting a laboratory”(7). One day, exploring in Buckshaw’s library, Flavia finds an old book which had belonged to her late mother, Harriet. As Flavia pours through An Elementary Study of Chemistry, she is intrigued by “the way in which everything, all of creation – all of it! – was held together by invisible chemical bonds, and I found a strange, inexplicable comfort in it knowing that somewhere, even though we couldn’t see it in our own world, there was real stability.”(10) Flavia is a natural chemist; Tar’s lab becomes her heaven-on-earth, and in that lab, she pursues her particular chemical interest, poison.

     But, for the time being, her interest is largely academic (aside from some “experiments” designed to annoy her two older sisters, Ophelia (aka Feely) and Daphne (aka Daffy), who are probably deserving of some minor irritation. World War II has ended, George VI is King of England, and life is quiet and simple in their pleasant country home, set in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. And then, as in classic old “cozy” mysteries, there’s an incident:

It was a bird, a jack snipe – and it was dead. It lay on its back on the doorstep, its stiff wings extended like a little peterodactyl, its eyes rather unpleasantly filmed over, the long black needle of its bill pointing straight up into the air. Something impaled upon it shifted in the morning breeze – a tiny scrap of paper.

No, not a scrap of paper, a postage stamp.

Father bent down for a closer look, then gave a little gasp. And suddenly he was clutching at this throat, his hands shaking like aspen leaves in autumn, his face the color of sodden ashes. (15)

     Why does the sight of the dead black bird so distress Colonel de Luce? And why is there an old Victorian postage stamp impaled on the bird’s beak? Since De Luce is an avid stamp collector, perhaps there’s a message. The next day, De Luce has a visitor, whose private conversation with the Colonel is threatening, and much later, after the visitor has left, Flavia awakens, heads down to the garden, and finds a man who, upon uttering the word, “Vale”, dies. Many 11-year-olds would be afraid, but not Flavia. “Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”(29) And the rest of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie follows Flavia’s pursuit of the identity of the mysterious man dead in the garden, smelling faintly of a chemical which she recognizes but can’t, at that precise moment, identify.

     One thing is certain: Flavia de Luce is not a British version of Nancy Drew. At age 11, she shows far more spunk and brains than her American predecessor. Bradley’s decision to situate the story in Britain’s countryside gives the book a certain “period piece” flavour, but it’s fun, and the reader has a window on a world that seemed kinder and gentler, except for the occasional mysterious death. Yes, Flavia’s speech has some uniquely British idioms, but that adds to the story’s authenticity. Fans of Hermione Granger, the female lead of the Harry Potter books, will love Flavia; there’s the same incredible intelligence, sense of persistence, and independent spirit. One caution: this isn’t an “easy read” (there are other Canadian mystery series better suited to young adults who like mystery but who are reluctant or less able readers). However, a capable young reader (probably middle school) will quickly find herself (sorry, I think that this is more likely to appeal to girls) swept up in the story and will find it hard to put the book down. And once The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is finished, continue reading the first chapter of Flavia’s next adventure, or check out the on-line e-club for Flavia fans.


A recently retired teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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