RogerBW's Blog

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley 20 October 2016

2009 historical mystery; first in Bradley's series about Flavia de Luce, young amateur sleuth in 1950s Britain. Flavia, one of three daughters of the widowed and impoverished Colonel de Luce, lives in Buckshaw, makes chemical experiments… and finds a body in the cucumber patch. Naturally, she investigates.

This is a strange book. Yes, on one level it's a typical story of amateur sleuthing among the family; but every so often one is reminded that, for all her mature ways, Flavia (a first-person narrator) is only eleven, and while she's sometimes exactly right about things, she still has a great deal to learn about people.

The biggest problem is that one has to accept narrative conventions: Flavia conducts her own investigation… because that's the thing that a protagonist in this sort of book does, even when she's warned off by the police. All right, it might well be within her character to try something like that, and she is quite a strange girl, but I'm not sure she has quite the force of will to carry on when she's lacking clues and running out of options to chase.

Is she plausible as an eleven-year-old girl? I don't know; I don't know any eleven-year-old girls. Maybe she knows too much and does too much; maybe not. Certainly, as with the Phryne Fisher books, one must absolutely manage to be in sympathy with Flavia in order to enjoy this series.

The era sometimes feels more like the 1930s than the 1950s; there are some references to the late war, but the story could be transplanted readily enough. Indeed, so many historical references are put in in an attempt to anchor the narrative that Flavia is forced to have a massive knowledge of popular culture as well as everything else.

After the first chapter, there's a fair bit of slog before things really get moving again. On balance, I enjoyed this – but I wasn't entirely won over. Followed by The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag.

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