Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Book 13 – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

By Alan Bradley

As a grownup, I do fancy stories about precocious young misfits. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is supposedly like a cross between Harriet The Spy and I Capture the Castle, the latter due it being about a motherless family living in an old Victorian mansion in post-WW2 England and told from the perspective of the youngest daughter, Flavia. But the comparisons pretty much stop there. Flavia de Luce is not your average 11 year old girl. Not only does she possess a brilliant aptitude for chemistry, but a morbid passion for poisons as well. It just so happens that when her “strange talents” had begun to manifest themselves, Flavia inherited the alchemist’s laboratory that once belonged to her dead Uncle Tar, conveniently tucked away in the attic of the De Luce mansion.

Soon enough, a dead body is found in the cucumber garden of Buckshaw Estate, and her stamp-collecting father, Colonel de Luce, is the prime suspect. The murder sparks Flavia’s curiosity as well as her obsessive-compulsive tendencies and she goes on a sleuthing spree that takes her all over the English county on her beloved bicycle and eventually leads her to father’s old boarding school. Flavia soon becomes embroiled in a philatelic conspiracy that involved a plot to assassinate Queen Victoria and a mysterious orange-tinted Penny Black stamp.

Alan Bradley is an Ontarian who has made several visits, but has never lived in, England though he does an admirable job capturing English rural life in the 1950’s. It’s interesting to note that this is Bradley’s first published novel at age 70, having taught scriptwriting at the University of Saskatoon for many years and having published non-fiction work. He is also a huge Sherlock Holmes afficionado. The events of TSatBofP unfold quite effectively and charmingly, and the pacing is quite efficient with some good page-turning moments.

However, even though the author has created a fairly original detective-heroine, there were still a few moments throughout the novel where it felt like an old dude attempting to write from the perspective of an pre-adolescent girl, albeit a highly intelligent one. Often it seemed that Bradley completely forgot that his character was only eleven years old. I suppose it’s possible that Flavia could recognize the “acrid protein smell” of insulin by sniffing a vial and deduce that the murder victim was diabetic, or single-handedly solve a cold murder case from 20 years ago (actually more than cold since the death was originally ruled as suicide), thus gaining the respect and admiration from Inspector Hewitt. But too often Flavia talks and thinks, well, like an old fart. Like any young girl who had lost her mother at a tender age, Flavia wants more than anything in the world is to be loved by her father. So when she manages to fanangle her way to see her father in the county jail, she is overjoyed when her father explains his story to her, even though she realizes that her poor deluded daddy thinks he’s talking to his dead wife, Harriet, instead of his youngest daughter.

Here we are, Father and I, shut up in a plain little room, and for the first time in my life having something that might pass for a conversation. We were talking to one another almost like adults; almost like one human being to another; almost like father and daughter…
… And so we sat, Father and I, primly, like two old women at a parish tea. It was not a perfect way to live one’s life, but it would have to do.

Then there is another time where Inspector Hewitt visits Flavia in her laboratory, and she makes him a cup of tea.

“Beautiful bit of bone china,” he said at last, raising the cup above his head to read the maker’s name on the bottom.
“Quite early Spode,’ I said. “Albert Einstein and George Bernard Shaw drank tea from the very cup when they visited Great-Uncle Tarquin—not both at the same time, of course.”

What kind of 11 year old girl talks like this, even if she is preternaturally intelligent and she grew up in an upper class English household in the 1950s? Would she really know or care what kind of china she’s drinking out of? And if she does, does she have to sound like a prim old lady?

Because of this, I found Flavia to be charming to a fault. Bradley has created a charismatic fictional character, but it sometimes feels like he’s trying too hard, with the result of having a heroine who’s much too good to be true. It’s the equivalent of having to watch those annoyingly precocious kids in Hollywood movies dispensing grownup wisdom to their elders. Flavia can’t quite come to life for me because too often I hear Bradley’s voice speaking through her. I understand that by making Flavia more child than adolescent allows her to insert herself in situations where an older person would be more conspicuous, but Flavia has far too much knowledge and experience than is possible for a gifted 11 year old. It would have been much more believable if Flavia was a few years older, say 13 or 14.

Another problem for me was how the other de Luce members were so superifically drawn. Flavia’s father is the same distant, taciturn figure as Daddy Mortmain in I Capture the Castle, and her older sisters Ophelia (“Feely”) and Daphne (“Daffy”) are merely self-absorbed, silly girls with a streak of nastiness. It’s unfortunate I was somewhat disappointed by the first book since Flavia de Luce has the potential to become a delightful mystery series (and the cover design strikes the perfect balance of whimsical restraint). Hopefully Flavia’s voice and the supporting characters will become more colourful and nuanced as the series develops. My brother also gave me the next book (The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag) for my birthday, so I’ll see if things improve. Otherwise, I’m going to be moving on! There are far more interesting books to explore!

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