The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

I’ll start off by saying that this sort of book is not my usual cup of tea – it was published this century, after all, and also contains a murder mystery…two damning features as far as I am concerned. However, a dear friend and reader of this blog sent me a copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, promising me that I would enjoy it, and so I took the leap outside of my literary comfort zone and gave it a go. I actually fancied a bit of light relief after spending a couple of weeks steeped in Victorian novels and academic texts as part of my research for my MA application, so it was a well timed gift, and I approached it with an open mind. After a bit of a false start, I did find it charming and funny and I enjoyed the tongue in cheek parody of several literary genres. It’s a quick, undemanding and entertaining romp of a novel, and sometimes that’s just what you need from a book. Even I can admit that!

It is 1950, in rural England. Flavia de Luce, precocious 11 year old chemist with a particular interest in concocting poisons amidst the surroundings of her own private laboratory, lives in a tumbledown stately home, Buckshaw, with her widowed father, Colonel de Luce, and her two older and very wicked sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. Flavia receives most of her parenting from Dogger, her father’s faithful retainer, who suffers from shell shock and has occasional violent ‘turns’. Life at Buckshaw is uneventful, with Flavia spending most of her time either thinking up poisons with which to torture her sisters or cycling into the local village, Bishops Lacey. However, life soon becomes much more exciting for Flavia; after overhearing her father having a heated argument in the study with a strange visitor one night, she wakes up to find his dying body in the garden. Who could be the culprit? And how do a strange mixture of clues, including a dead jacksnipe, a torn Penny Black stamp and a missing slice of custard pie fit into the mystery? Flavia is determined to find out, but she has no idea just what she’s getting herself into…

Flavia is a delightful heroine, with shades of the frank innocence of Cassandra Mortmain from I Capture the Castle alongside the no nonsense Flora Poste of Cold Comfort Farm…and a fair whack of Nancy Drew, too! Her dialogue is fresh and witty, and the other characters are well done, with plenty of hilarious conversations and local ‘characters’ popping up to provide a colourful picture of a stereotypical mid century English utopia. However, I did find that the attempts of the Canadian author to faithfully reproduce an English setting faltered in places, and there were a few anachronisms that grated, such as the use of words like ‘quit’, which English people just don’t say, except in the context of stopping smoking. Aside from this, however, it is a well written, inventive and clever novel with a rollicking plot and endearing characters. I highly recommend it for when you’re in the right mood for a bit of light, undemanding fun.

28 comments

  1. I did not realize that you were so anti-mystery round these parts, but I am glad to hear you enjoyed this book. I feel like I’m the last person on the planet who has yet to attempt them, though I do enjoy “cosy mysteries” (so much so that they are what I would consider the ultimate comfort read). One of these days I’m sure I’ll acquaint myself with Flavia, given that I love two of the three heroines you compare her to (I never was much of a Nancy Drew girl, I’m afraid). Also, I think this is the perfect time of year for rollicking romps when it comes to leisure reading.

    [As an aside, I also wanted to say that when I was at the library today, I picked up a copy of South Riding, which you extolled in your last post. I’m really looking forward to it!]

    1. I do like a bit of mystery – you can’t beat a bit of Agatha Christie or Wilkie Collins – but most of the time I just like a nice straight narrative! It is the perfect sort of cosy winter book, though, when you want to curl up in bed and just be swept away!

      Fantastic news about South Riding – I hope you love it as much as I do!

  2. Everyone around me seemed to enjoy this, even Roman, but I didn’t get on with it. In fact, I ditched it at around page 30, I just didn’t care. I’d rather read from the choices you made in your previous post. It is lovely to see readers excited about the next installment in the series though so from that standpoint it’s a good thing.

    All the best with your MA application process, Rachel! I found the whole experience with Taylor to be extremely time consuming and distracting and that’s just being on the sidelines.

    1. I was ready to ditch it, Darlene, but I persevered because it was a gift and I’m glad I did, though it won’t be a favourite.

      Thank you! Time consuming is the word…so many stages and things you have to get other people to do! But fingers crossed it will be worth it in the end!

  3. Oh! I read this, and the second one, too. They are a lot of fun, ‘tho I liked the first better. And, as an American, I had no idea of any imperfections in the way he portrayed English life – interesting to read your comments about it.

    1. Glad to hear the second one is just as funny, Lisa! Yes, I think you’d only pick up on the slight forced-ness of the ‘English’ setting if you are English…it’s a pretty good attempt but there are certain things that were just out of place.

  4. I experienced this as an audiobook, which suited the style of the book well. Unfortunately despite, or probably because of, being a voracious reader I don’t have a very good imagination when it comes to setting and characters. However the flavour of the narration was excellent and I greatly enjoyed this book. I hope others go on to enjoy it too.

  5. I read this recently too and found it light relief and it was fun to read something out of my general comfort zone. I found it charming but wasn’t completely wowed by it; in some parts I found it quite precious and the conscious cutesy-ness irked me. I’ll read the second one though and drew those same comparisons of Cassandra Mortmain and Nancy Drew.

    Good luck with the MA application, I don’t have fond memories of my MA application process.

    1. Yes – the cutesyness did annoy me a fair bit as well. It was a bit gilding the lily in the places!!

      Thank you – yes, it’s far more tortuous than I imagined. And I’m not even at interview stage yet!!

  6. I enjoy it, but somehow was never in a hurry to read the next in the series. Remember thinking I’d like to know more about the sisters, especially the bookworm one, that reminded me of Mary Bennett.

  7. I hesitated before reading this book. A ten-yrear-old girl as the protagonist? Hmmm …. But Flavia and her family have grown on me. I’ve read all of the Flavia de Luce books and enjoyed them all. They’re a little off kilter, a little like I Capture the Castle or We Have Always Lived in the Castle (what is it about castles that fosters craziness?!), with children who are not quite normal. I think they’re a nice change of pace.

    1. I know…it’s a strange concept to begin with, isn;t it? I didn’t get ‘into’ it until about 100 pages I don’t think! Yes the We have always lived in the castle is a very good comparison, actually – there is something a little off about Flavia which adds to the quirky feel! Glad you’ve enjoyed the other books – I’m sure I’ll get around to them eventually!

  8. I am glad you enjoyed this one Rachel, it is one of my favourite series at the moment. The mixture of Flavia as a wonderful, and very precocious but never quite annoying, lead character and I love the period in time, they are always – well as they go on – rather more sinister than you think and the murder kind of comes second to the scenarios and characters Flavia gets caught up in. I think they are utter gems.

  9. I’ve thought about reading this, Rachel, and always get caught up in something else. I may give it a go sometime soon, if nothing else, for the witty names and circumstances you mention here.

  10. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Flavia deLuce books. I am up to the fourth book “I Am Half Sick of Shadows” and am starting to worry that I only have two books left in the series! Half Sick is perfect for the holidays. Flavia is trying to catch Santa Clause!

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