After recently following The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I strongly felt the urge to return to the murderous British countryside. Though a much more recent work than Dame Agatha Christie’s debut, Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie still contains the cozy elements of classic estate murder mystery: dark deeds done in an idealized pastoral setting. Set in the 1950s, the book’s narrator even makes mention of Dame Agatha, noting that the puzzle presented before her is worthy of a Christie novel.
She’s right, too.
The book’s detective/narrator is 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, a precocious young girl who lives with her widowed father and two older sisters in a mansion called Buckshaw. Upper crust, the de Luces are struggling financially, and when a dead bird with a stamp affixed to its bill is found on the mansion front doorstep, it proves the overture to murder and the unraveling of a history going back to dad de Luce’s school days. The thick plot revolves on a rare stolen stamp known as the Ulster Avenger. Flavia’s philatelist father has more than a passing knowledge of this ultra-rare collectible, swiped from his old headmaster by a fellow student — and when the grown-up version of that same pilferer shows up poisoned in one of Buckshaw’s gardens, Father is the one arrested on suspicion of murder. It’s up to Flavia to ferret out the true killer.
As the book’s narrator, Flavia proves an entertaining guide. Scientifically minded — with a particular affinity toward poisons — she doesn’t conform to the outmoded standards of girlish gentility to which her sisters aspire. Alternately canny and naïve, strong-willed and unsentimental, she’s like a well-read overseas cousin to the heroine of True Grit. Her investigations place her in serious jeopardy on more than one occasion, but we never doubt that she’ll be the one to expose whodunit.
Bradley’s writing beautifully conveys the voice of his brainy heroine — along with the world of his post-war rural setting. If the killer’s identity isn’t all that startling, the unraveling of the twisty line of events leading to that corpse in the quiet English garden will hold most mystery lovers’ attention. Too, the scenes focusing on Flavia’s own prankish experiments with poison (conducted at the potential expense of her siblings, of course) proving an amusing subplot. Since her debut in 2009, Flavia has appeared in two more mysteries with a fourth announced for publication later this year. On the basis of this first, I know I’m looking to bicycle once again with our sharp-eyed girl through the English countryside.