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Oh how astonishing and pleasing is genuine originality! THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE witnesses the arrival of not one but two genuinely original and genuinely new voices in the field of mystery writing; first that of the author Alan Bradley (although he has written another book, this is his first mystery) and secondly that of his first-person narrator Flavia Sabina de Luce. Flavia is eleven years old and lives at Buckshaw, the ancestral home (or pile) of the de Luces, with her older sisters Opehlia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy), her father and the gardener Dogger.
It is 1950 and Flavia spends her time either engaged in internecine warfare with the piano-playing and (in Flavia's eyes) vain Feely and the book-besotted Daffy, or more importantly engaged in the great passion of her life, chemistry, in the wonderful laboratory established by Tarquin de Luce in the nineteenth century. This enjoyable mode of existence is interrupted when someone leaves a dead jack snipe on the kitchen doorstep with a postage stamp impaled on its beak; Flavia observes her father almost have a heart attack at the sight. The mystery soon deepens when Flavia eavesdrops on her father and an unknown man having an heated argument. In the early hours of the morning after this Flavia discovers a dying man in the cucumber patch; he breathes the word 'vale' and then expires. Flavia's innate and insatiable curiosity impels her to investigate, but the investigation becomes much more urgent when her father is arrested for murder by the police in the person of the genial Inspector Hewitt.
Much as I always insist on the primacy of plot in mysteries there are rare cases where some other aspect of the book is so brilliant that it for once plays second-fiddle. In the case of THE SWEETNESS that brilliance is entirely centred on Flavia and her first-person narration. I simply cannot recall the last time I so enjoyed being in the company of a first-person narrator. Whether she is in any sense a realistic eleven-year-old girl from 1950 I have absolutely no idea; she would certainly be an extremely precocious one in any era, but the question of realism is in any case a total irrelevance. What matters is her charm, her eye, her lively intelligence. Bradley has a simply astonishing gift for putting simile and analogy in Flavia's mouth, from nature, books, chemistry, the movies, anything at all. It may be that not all these analogies are always entirely historically accurate (Dirk Bogarde for instance is probably a little early as a reference from 1950) but to quibble about this would be pedantry of the worst order; they all feel right. But it would quite wrong to give the impression that Flavia is some kind of paragon; one can clearly see that she would be a near-nightmare to live with, but to spend time in her company through the mediation of the page is quite simply delightful.
Assigning this primacy to the extraordinary voice of Flavia does not mean that other parts of the book are unsatisfactory. On the contrary. The plot is a splendid piece of hokum with some pleasing deduction and an excellent historical back-story. The thriller and girl-in-jeopardy scenes (wonderfully parodied at the very start of the novel) are kept in restraint and the big one when it arrives is genuinely chilling. The characterisation is all of the highest order ranging from the comic to the sad. The narrative, quite apart from wanting to spend more time with Flavia, sails along at a splendid pace. And the family dynamics of an English upper-class family, close to cliche though they sail, never fall into the trap when given the treatment of Flavia's caustic eye; Bradley even manages to achieve genuine emotion in the big scene between Flavia and her father.
THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE won the Debut Dagger award in 2007 and it would be hard to imagine a more worthy winner. This is a book which triumphantly succeeds in its objectives of charming and delighting. And on top of that it is genuinely original. The good news is that there are already two more Flavia books in the pipeline scheduled for release in 2010 and 2011. If Bradley can sustain the quality of this debut then we may well be talking in a few years about one of the great voices and great series of mystery fiction. I resort to - and it is very, very rarely that I use this - that old cliche, a must-read.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, January 2009
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