May 17, 2010

BOOKS: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley (2009)

Reasonably entertaining mystery novel, the biggest flaw of which is its implausible heroine.

Our setting is Buckshaw, an English country estate that is home to the de Luce family. Colonel de Luce is a veteran of World War II (the book is set in 1950), and a widowed father to three daughters. A dead bird is found at the door one summer afternoon, with a postage stamp impaled on its beak; shortly thereafter, the youngest de Luce daughter, 11-year-old Flavia, discovers a man in the garden and witnesses his final breath.

Flavia is our narrator and detective, and if you're thinking that an 11-year-old setting out to solve a murder is a bit of a stretch, well, you're right. It boggles the imagination that no one -- not her father, not her older sisters, not even the policemen investigating the case -- ever tells Flavia to butt out; Flavia's ingenuity and deductive reasoning skills also seem rather far-fetched for a child her age.

But the mystery at the heart of the book is a good one; the plot is well thought-out and the clues are fairly placed (although Bradley has to get a bit Dickensian with some of his character names in order to make certain clues work). The period setting, while not strictly necessary, allows for a few nice details -- one possible suspect might have committed the murder without remembering it, as he suffers from what was then known as "shell shock," which we would now call post-traumatic stress.

I even liked Flavia as a character, for the most part; her sibling rivalry with older sisters Ophelia and Daphne is amusing and believable, and she's an endearing child. But she's just too young to be convincing as the detective in a murder mystery. A second volume in the series was published this year (The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag), and Bradley's storytelling is strong enough that I might pick it up. I hope that he's jumped forward a few years, though; even making Flavia as old as 15 or 16 would go a long way towards making her a more plausible heroine.

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