The Sweetness in the Bottom of the Pie
Bantam Books, 2009
“It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. . . Luckily for me, they had pulled the gag so tightly into my mouth that my nostrils were left unobstructed, and I was able to draw in one slow lungful after another of the stale, musty air.”(1)
This is the reader’s introduction to Flavia de Luce, the fearless and inventive heroine of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Flavia is the youngest of three daughters in an impoverished aristocratic family in Britain in 1950. She is an eleven-year-old Jane Marple in this Christie-esqsue English-village mystery, and she soon escapes the closet to begin investigating the murder that happens in her own family’s garden. The mystery is completely true to the conventions of Christie and other novelists like Ngaio Marsh. Flavia’s family finds a dead bird—a jack snipe—on their doorstep, with a rare postage stamp fixed to its beak. Shortly after this takes place, Flavia finds a dying man in the cucumber patch. Does the corpse have anything to do with the argument her father, whose hobby is philately, had with a threatening stranger? When the police inspector assigned to the case at first dismisses Flavia as a child, she launches her own investigation.
One delight in the book is Flavia’s character. She is a precocious auto-didact, but still an eleven year old, and is far from perfect. Her love is chemistry and her passion poison. She doctors her vain sister’s lipstick with a distillation of poison ivy, then carefully tracks the results in her journal. (To be fair this is retaliation for several things her sister has done to her—see the opening quotation.) Here is Flavia, a true eleven year old, upon the discovery of the dying man:
“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 even happened to me in my entire life.” (p 29)
Flavia sets out to discover the identity of both the murdered man and the murderer, introducing the reader to a number of interesting village residents. To Flavia’s surprise, grown-ups are not quite as black-and-white, or as stupid, as she has decided they are. She has several surprises along the way, including this exchange with the housekeeper/cook. Mrs. Mullet periodically makes a custard pie, which the de Luces loathe. In a fit of brattiness, mainly designed to push away an unwelcome sense of intimacy, Flavia advises the housekeeper of this fact:
“And while we’re speaking girl to girl, it’s probably as good a time as any to tell you that we none of us at Buckshaw really care for custard pie. In fact, we hate it.”
“Oh, piff, I know that well enough,” she said.
“You do?” I was too taken aback to think of more than two words.
“Course I do. Cooks know all, they say, and I’m no different than the next one. I’ve known that de Luces and custard don’t mix since Miss Harriet was alive.”
“Why do I make them? My Alf fancies a nice custard pie now and again. Miss Harriet used to tell me, ‘The de Luces are all lofty rhubarbs and prickly gooseberries, Mrs. M, whereas your Alf’s a smooth, sweet custard man. I should like you to bake an occasional custard pie to remind us of our haughty ways, and when we turn up our noses at it, why, you must take it home to your Alf as a sweet apology.’ And I don’t mind sayin’ I’ve taken home a goodly number of apologies these more than twenty years past.”(p 266)
The main mystery is less complex than Christie, but strong enough to carry this book and showcase this unusual new voice. There is a real mystery in Flavia’s life, one touched on several times in this book, and that is the mystery of her mother, Harriet, who apparently died while mountain climbing in Tibet.
Flavia is knowledgeable and intelligent, but Bradley keeps her an eleven-year-old. While her observations are worthy of Sherlock Holmes, her conclusions are drawn from the sensibilities and experience of someone who is still in childhood. Nowhere is this more poignant than the last few chapters, when she confronts the murderer.
I look forward to the next book in this series. I can’t wait to find out more about Harriet, watch the hostilities between Flavia and her sisters escalate, and learn more about the locals of the village. And I want more of Flavia racing about the countryside on her faithful bicycle Gladys, yodeling her name, ruminating on life, and gathering clues.