Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

In Alan Bradley's novel The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, our heroine, eleven year-old Flavia de Luce opines that, "Heaven must be a place where the library is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week." So that it occurs to me that heaven must also be a narrator like Flavia de Luce, who is perfectly precocious in all the right places and suitably limited in others. The latter point being particularly important, because Flavia is the first fictional detective I've ever encountered who solved the crimes slower than I did. Not that she's stupid, oh no, not Our Lady of the Periodic Table of Elements, but hers is a refreshing perspective when her youth shows through.

And yes, in this, she's much like Harriet the Spy. Or rather, Flavia is a tribute to Harriet, though I wonder how consciously? At first glance, the connections could be coincidental. Flavia is sleuthy, and keeps a notebook, and that she's charged with the spirit of her late Mother, who was called Harriet. This last point I doubt Alan Bradley means for us to interpret as Flavia being of Harriet (M. Welch) born, mostly because I don't think male readers identify with Harriet that strongly. (And this, by the way, I'd love to be wrong about).

But I encounter the following paragraph: "I was me. I was Flavia. And I loved myself, even if no one else did." And I can't help but think that Bradley was channeling his inner-Fitzhugh after all.

Flavia lives Buckshaw, a grand home outside the English village of Bishop's Lacey. Her eccentric father scarcely pays her attention, her older sisters torture her mercilessly, the entire household lives under a shroud of sadness from her mother's death, but Flavia contents herself mixing poisonous concoctions in her chemistry lab at the top of the house. When a dead bird lands on the doorstep, however, with a postage stamp stuck through its beak, and then then a body turns up in the cucumber bed in the garden, Flavia is aware that life is about to get interesting for the very first time. And when her father is arrested with murder, she becomes all the more determined to solve the crime herself and clear his name.

Bradley writes Flavia tongue-in-cheek, his novel a send-up of detective fiction, but he manages to create a rather intriguing mystery all the same. Involving philately, libraries, English reticence, postmistresses-- a whole host of infinitely nerdy pleasures. A whimsical book, Bradley writes gorgeous turns of phrase to match-- my favourite was when Flavia steps into her dead mother's long-undisturbed bedroom and feels as though she were "an umbrella remembering what it feels like to pop open in the rain."

The Sweetness in the Bottom of the Pie is a book built on a the back of other books, on the back of a whole literary tradition, and its charm lies in its references to a world already much beloved. The connections it draws and its own twisty plot make for a deliciously readable delight.