Monday, February 11, 2013
Review: Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
For a book published in 2009 this novel is remarkably like the cozy mysteries Agatha Christie wrote in tone, voice, and the nature of the crime: a stranger is found dead at an English country estate and an amateur investigates the death leaving the police in the dust. What's different about this book is that the amateur is an 11-year-old prodigy chemist in pigtails.
From the very first page the author grabbed my interest by diving straight into the mystery of the victim in the closet and held me captive till the end by introducing mystery after mystery with one common denominator: they were all not at all what they seemed. A mystery novel is of course all about the mystery and this one kept me wondering for most of the book. I figured out the culprit not too long before Flavia did and so the story remained interesting while the investigation was going on.
A fun twist is that this is a historical novel and to me the author translated the tone of the time and place to the page very well. I enjoyed reading about listening to music on a gramophone, researching information in 20-year-old newspapers and figuring out details about people and places through old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. Things like that transported me to times long past and I relished the experience because of the contrast with our technology-saturated present. There is just something positively quaint about the concept of investigating the case of a body in the cucumber patch.
This novel is full of interesting characters and Flavia, the protagonist, is the most interesting of them all. Half the time she doesn't seem like an 11-year-old at all, what with her independence and prowess in chemistry, and sometimes it seemed too much, but then she'd do something utterly age-appropriate and I would see her as simply an extremely clever child once more. Dogger stole a few scenes but apart from that Flavia is the undeniable star of the show. An interesting twist to the cast is Flavia's mother, who just happens to have been dead for a decade. She is a prime example of a character who is never around but is more influential than most other characters in the story. I must admit, I'm more curious about the enigmatic Harriet than I am about even Dogger, who plays an important part in the investigation.
I am a big fan of mystery, especially the quaint kind, so even the ending being somewhat over the top didn't spoil the experience for me, and learning all sorts of things about chemistry didn't detract from the enjoyment either. All in all this is a delightful novel that continued the pattern of pleasant reading experiences this year and I hope the trend continues.