Monday, April 26, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

When I walk into the mystery section of a bookstore, I usually find myself overwhelmed by the towering wall of what, in my eyes, looks like hundreds of very similar book covers. Knives moistened with blood, dark figures lurking in shadowed streets, and the faces of doleful looking girls encompass the majority of mystery books. The covers all seem so dark and depressing, making it very challenging for me to single one out. Growing up I had always enjoyed mysteries, whether it was reading a book for a book report in grade school, watching CSI into the late hours of the night, or solving riddles on a road trip, so it seems strange that I would have only read a handful of mystery books since the beginning of my introduction to literacy. And so, this week I decided to indulge myself in the twists and turns of a mystery book by reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the debut novel of Canadian writer Alan Bradley. One of the first things that caught my attention about this book was the cover, as is most often the case. It was not littered with disturbing images, but actually looked quite cheerful and inviting. It turned out to be a delightfully dark English mystery, featuring Flavia de Luce, a precocious young sleuth with an off-beat sense of humor and an inquiring mind, accompanied by her eccentric family. It was written with genuine originality, and is an extraordinary maze of mystery and intrigue, that will leave you with glorious anticipation until the last pages.

Bradley starts us off during the beginning of a lazy and ordinary summer in 1950, when a series of inexplicable events strike Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia’s family calls home. The de Luce's enjoyable mode of relaxed existence is interrupted when a dead jack snipe is found on the kitchen doorstep, with a rare postage stamp bizarrely impaled on its beak. Later that night, Flavia overhears her normally reserved and amicable father, arguing tempestuously with a stranger in is secluded study, and only mere hours later, finds a dying man in the cucumber patch. As she watches expectantly while he utters his last dying word, 'vale', she becomes both appalled and delighted. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.” To Flavia the investigation is the stuff of science: full of possibilities, contradictions, and connections.

Flavia is a wonderful creation, and makes for a highly engaging and memorable heroine, and I so loved being in her company this week. Her brilliance and mature inquisitive nature come together to make her a perfectly dexterous sleuth, while her ongoing rivalry with her older sisters, and sufficient childish quirks, reminds us that she is still a somewhat normal eleven year old girl. For me, she is a mix of Harriet the Spy's curious and mischievous personality, as well as Harry Potter's Hermione Granger's perspicacious and resourceful tendencies. Flavia is quick-witted, speaking often with smilies and analogies, making her a relatable character for readers of any age.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie provides us with a richly imagined, and luscious new world. The descriptions of Bucksaw, the de Luce family, and their many friends and acquaintances are laid out effortlessly, and the ongoing clues and realizations keep you engaged and thinking from beginning to end. Bradley artfully includes historical trivia about science, music, and literature, and combined with a piercing depiction of class and society, are mixed perfectly together to provide a succulent and consuming novel.

It was easy to immerse myself in Flavia's world, and become ever so intrigued by the questions and mysteries at hand. Having only a week to read this book, I read it quick quickly, but I fear that I may have missed out on some of the joy of actively solving the puzzles alongside Flavia. As I mentioned earlier, I am fascinated with mysteries and riddles, and always strive to solve them, so I think next time I read a mystery book, I will take more time to carefully read and absorb all of the clues, giving myself the opportunity to come to my own conclusions about the outcome. And so lie's my tip for Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, read it carefully, and allow the information to sink in and work itself out. Enjoy the challenge of actually thinking while reading, rather than just skimming over the words to get to the end. 


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