This reviewer was half-hoping that Flavia De Luce, the brilliant toxicologist of Alan Bradley’s delicious new mystery, would be a cheerful murderess on the other end of the age spectrum from the old ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace. But no, save getting mild revenge on a tormentor, 11-year-old Flavia uses her knowledge of poisons for good. For example, to find out why that red-headed chap dropped dead in her father’s cucumber patch, right beneath her bedroom window.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is set in post-World War II Britain, a time of a certain dinginess, in a great country estate where the sad and widowed Mr. De Luce lives with his three daughters and his stamp collection. As Flavia tries to determine what’s causing the strange events around her home, Bradley delights the reader with lots of twists, turns and red herrings—and heaps of English atmosphere. There are unkind older sisters and dotty spinsterish librarians and a devoted, war-wounded factotum. The eventual villain is delightfully creepy and sadistic enough for you to want him thrown in the slammer for a long time—in a movie version, he’d be played by David Thewlis. At the center of it all is precocious, funny, slightly annoying Flavia, with her mousy brown braids and knack for getting out of tight spots (it helps to be little). Amid all the fun, Bradley allows moments of poignancy. Caught in one of those tight spots, Flavia believes no one in her Britishly undemonstrative family loves her. Maybe her mother loved her once, but the restless Harriet left Flavia when she was a year old and disappeared on one of her adventures.
Though Flavia narrates the story, the voice seems too adult for even a very bright child. The reader can easily imagine this as a tale recounted by a jolly, eccentric old lady, maybe a retired Oxford don, to a cub reporter from The Guardian. But it matters not. Readers will want more, much more, of Flavia de Luce!
Arlene McKanic picks her poison in Jamaica, New York.