Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

For very-nearly-eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, the discovery of a dead snipe on the doorstep of Buckshaw, the crumbling de Luce country seat, was a marvellous mystery - especially since this particular snipe had a rather rare stamp neatly impaled on its beak. Even more astonishing, however, was the effect of the dead bird on her father, Colonel de Luce, a man usually untroubled by emotions of an kind (unless you count gloating over his stamp collection), but who now appeared to be genuinely frightened.

Sure enough, soon Flavia discovers something even more shocking in the cucumber patch, and it's clear that the snipe was a bird of very ill omen indeed. As the police descent on Buckshaw, and Colonel de Luce becomes the centre of a murder investigation, hostilities between Flavia and her unbearable older sisters, Daphne and Ophelia, are briefly suspended as the dire realisation sinks in: having lost their mother, Harriet, when Flavia was only a baby, they could soon be about to lose their father too.

As the noose tightens, helped by Colonel de Luce's grim-faced silence, Flavia decides it is up to her - using a long-abandoned but fully-equipped Victorian chemical laboratory - to piece together the clues and solve the puzzle.

Who was the man she heard her father arguing with after the snipe had been found? What was a species of bird that wintered in Scandinavia doing in England at all? Who or what is the Ulster Avenger? And, perhaps most peculiar of all, who took a slice of Mrs Muller's unspeakable custard pie that had been cooling by the kitchen window?
Not too long ago on my personal blog I shared a teaser and in that post I talked about the fact that this book has been a long time favourite in blogging circles, and I can totally see why.

The star of the book is nearly eleven year old Flavia de Luce. Her passions are chemistry and bedeviling her older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. She lives in country England at a sprawling house called Buckshaw with her father, and the aforementioned sisters.

Flavia is an unusual girl to say the least. She is far more precocious* than any eleven year old I have known, and to be honest would probably get on my nerves a little in real life. As a sleuth though, she is an awful lot of fun to read about!

Our story begins with the arrival on the kitchen step of a dead jack snipe. There are a couple of things that are odd about that. That particular bird winters in the Scandinavian countries and so is a long way from home, and there is a very valuable and rare stamp impaled on it's beak. Also a bit odd...someone has taken a piece of the custard pie that the cook Mrs Muller makes on a semi-regular basis but no one in the family will eat!

It doesn't take long before the plot thickens though. Soon after Flavia discovers the body of a man in the cucumber patch. She found him just in time to hear his last word ... "vale".

Armed with her notebook, taking full advantage of her chemistry lab and transported around her local district thanks to her trusty bicycle Gladys, Flavia sets her considerable intellect to the task of solving the murder, a task made much more urgent by the fact that her father is one of the prime suspects. Her very particular personality traits mean that she is not afraid to ask questions where they probably should not be asked, and to take action where it probably would be better to wait, but it mostly works out in the end.

It soon becomes clear that the current day mystery has its roots back in the past, going back to the 1920s, but the book is also quite evocative of it's time in ways that it is easy to forget would have existed now. For example, both Flavia's father and the man about the house, Dogger, have come back from WWII as quite different men, and the influence of the war just five short years later is obvious throughout the book. Here is a short passage from  pages 178-179:

A cool, dim corridor stretched away in front of me, to infinity it seemed, and I set out along it, lifting my feet carefully to keep from making scuffing noises on the slate floor.

On either side, a long galley of smiling faces - some of them schoolboys and some masters - receded into the darkness, each one a Greyminsterian who had given his life for his country, and each in his own black-lacquered frame. 'That Others Might Live', it said on a gilded scroll. At the end of the corridor, set apart from the others, were photographs of three boys, their names engraved in red on little brass rectangles. Under each name were the words, 'Missing in Action'.

'Missing in Action?' Why wasn't Father's photo hanging there, I wondered.

Father was generally as absent as these young men, whose bones were somewhere in France. I felt a little guilty at the thought, but it was true.
There is a full cast of supporting characters that may have limited page time, but they leave a good impression on the reader. I am pretty sure that we will meet many of them again in future books, especially Inspector Hewitt, Mrs Muller and Dogger

By turns amusing, touching and always filled curiously fulfilling, this was a really great introduction to a new series, and I can't wait to see what Flavia gets up to next! We even got to find out why Mrs Muller continues to bake the custard pies even though no one in the family will eat them!

And now I think I might go and see if I can buy an custard tart from somewhere, or maybe even just have some fruit and custard as an unworthy substitute

Rating 4.5/5

*I don't believe that it is possible to review this book without the precocious or a synonym for that word appearing somewhere in the review!

Adapted from the original post which appeared at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader


  1. I am glad you enjoyed this book, Marg! I really need to read the sequel...

    1. I have it out of the library at the moment.. Will read it in the next couple of months

  2. Have enjoyed the entire series, somewhat to my surprise as a precocious 11 year old could be wearying if mishandled. But light touch throughout.

  3. Have not read this...but now I think I HAVE to! The way that you are describing it sounds like the Sherlock Holmes short story, "The Five Orange Pips." Do you remember that one where orange pips (pits) are sent to people shortly before they are killed?

  4. I got this book for Christmas and now I really can't wait to read it. Thanks for this review.

  5. To say that Flavia was unusual is putting it mildly! her two sisters - I wanted to shake them till they rattled!!!!