Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

It always seems that, when there's a discussion about escapist fiction, it is in the context of summer. In some ways this makes sense, because in the summer you feel free to do (and perhaps read) things you might not do (or read) in the more serious, colder months. But, more me, it's in those serious and cold months that I really need something escapist, especially by the time March rolls around. But escapist does not mean dumb. Rather, a good escapist novel takes you somewhere else – either in time or in place – and gives you a story that is totally absorbing, allowing you to escape from your day-to-day reality. And, what could be a better escape from March weather in the city than summertime in the English countryside, circa 1950? Not a sleepy countryside, though. In Alan Bradely's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, murder has come to the small town of Bishop's Lacey, and it has turned the life of eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce totally upside down – in a good way. 

Flavia is one of those child narrators that manages to walk the line between overly (and annoyingly) precocious and just too precious. She is young enough to be interested in all sort of things without being too self-conscious about it, and it seems that, although she may be on the edge of adolescence, the hormones haven't hit quite yet. Rather than being interested in boys, Flavia is interested in chemistry, and poisons in particular. The de Luce family – Flavia, her father, and her two sisters, Ophelia and Daphne – live at Buckshaw, a manor house that is filled with all the sorts of family history it ought to be. Part of that history is a chemistry laboratory, installed by Uncle Tar quite some time ago and now Flavia's private playroom. 

Novels with child protagonists have to get around the normal supervision a child is under. Bradley does this quickly at the beginning: Harriet, the girls' mother, died in a mountaineering accident not long after Flavia was born; their father is quiet and spends most of his time in his study with his stamp collection. Although he remains strict about mealtimes and spending certain evenings together as a family, he otherwise leaves the girls to themselves. Ophelia and Daphne are quite horrible to Flavia, so she has learned to entertain herself. When a dead body turns up in the cucumber patch (the body of a man she saw her father arguing with late the night before), she is more than entertained, she is excited.

Rather like Agatha Christie's character Miss Marple – an elderly woman who was able to solve crimes by being observant and a bit of a gossip – Flavia is a perfect amateur sleuth. She tears around the countryside on Gladys, her bicycle, investigating the identity of the dead man. As a non-threatening child, she is quite capable of talking her way into (and out of) situations, as well as peppering adults with questions carefully edged in flattery. That she manages to do all of this while still exacting revenge on here sisters for their little cruelties is a nice reminder that she is still a child, and therefore has many priorities. She is also refreshingly nonchalant about some bits of information, mostly because she isn't quite old enough to know what everything means. But, she is smart, and in the end she pulls it all together.

As it turns out (without spoiling all the fun of the story), the mystery of the dead man ties back to her father's school days, a previous death, and (of all things) stamp collecting. I would never have thought I'd get so caught up in a story filled with details about postage stamps, but there you go. Perhaps best of all, Flavia herself is quite surprised about it too, and the historical details that back up the reasons for the murder are quite interesting in and of themselves.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is not a book to pick up unless you have the whole weekend free, because once you get hooked, you won't want to do anything but keep reading. Bradley's attention to detail means that as the plot progresses all the loose ends get gathered up to reveal a well thought out dénouement. It is so satisfying to read a detective novel that isn't about gore, violence and sex – not that there isn't a place for those things, but it is a bit of a relief to read a mystery that hinges on great characters and good writing, rather than fancy surprise endings. And as far as escapism goes, Flavia is just the sort of eleven-year-old you don't mind following around for a while.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Anchor Canada edition)

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