With the exception of televised detective shows, I’ve never really ben interested in mysteries enough to read them. I don’t know why, since so much of what defines a mystery is right up by alley: death, a puzzle to solve, a twisty plot sprinkled with red herrings and innocuous details that are actually the clues required to solve the puzzle. Sherlock is my favorite detective (equal parts flawed and intelligent), but I’ve never actually read the books that spawned him. Instead, I watch the shows and movies that are inspired by the literature and I read books that fall more firmly in the thriller, fantasy, science fiction or literary genres. But then I spied this cover:
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
And I was so taken in by the bright color, the graphic illustration and, let’s face it, the word “pie,” that I thought it time to dip my toes in the previously murky lake of murder mysteries. This is my secret: I very often do judge a book by its cover. I love well-done covers, and I sometimes find myself giving a book a chance, even when it wasn’t something I would normally pick up. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this book holds more than just an attractive cover. The flawed, yet genius detective is actually an 11-year-old girl, with a snarky, independent attitude and a passion for poisons. Flavia de Luce spends her days dodging and sabotaging her rotten older sisters, running chemistry experiments in a dusty laboratory built by an ancestor in the family mansion, and otherwise getting herself into trouble. Luckily for her and the local police, she can handle trouble, even when it ends up mysteriously dying in her garden.
The young protagonist, unique characters, and well-researched details of topics that I know only a little about all come together to make this series a fun introduction to the mystery novel. Flavia takes some getting used to, but in the end you can’t help but love the precocious little girl who sees everything that happens to her as a chance to soak up knowledge. For example:
“The eyes, as blue as the birds in the Willow pattern, looked up into mine as if staring out from some dim and smoke past, as if there were some recognition in their depths. And then they died. I wish I could say my heart was stricken, but it wasn’t. I wish I could say my instinct was to run away, but that would not be true. Instead, I watched in awe, savoring every detail: the fluttering fingers, the almost imperceptible bronze metallic cloudiness that appeared on the skin, as if, before my very eyes, it were being breathed upon by death. And then the utter stillness. 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 ever happened to me in my entire life.” p. 29
Author Alan Bradley’s writing is descriptive and engaging (a really well-written debut), with a macabre British humor that I loved, though I have to admit that not everyone likes that sort of thing. Incidentally, Bradley is from British Colombia, not England, though he does an excellent job detailing small town life in the English countryside in the 1950’s. The puzzle is complicated enough to keep you guessing, but not so far-fetched that you are unable to accept the solution, which I find to be problematic for some detective shows I’ve seen. I can only assume that some mystery novelists have the same problem.
Luckily for me and my newfound interest in mysteries, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is just the first of several adventures for Flavia de Luce. Five more books have been published and another is coming in the Spring of 2015. I’ve already powered through The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. It was a little more difficult getting into this one, though that has more to do with how long it takes Bradley to get to the murder. I’ll have to check out the next one before I definitively judge the series, but it definitely had a great ending that wove together interesting facts about puppet shows and electricity to help Flavia identify the culprit and solve another murder from a few years before.
I will be taking a break while I read through Lucy Worsley’s The Art of the English Murder and a collection of short stories by Karen Russell entitled Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Plus, stay tuned for my review of Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, which I read for the Fellowship of the Worms’ October book. It’s been a very Halloween-flavored October in my reading, which has been just lovely.