~~Moved from GR--now only 14 left!~~
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce #1)
by Alan Bradley
A lighthearted and enjoyable murder mystery romp with engaging and entertaining characters. Flavia, the protagonist and investigator, is a horrifically precocious 11-year-old girl with a macabre obsession with poisons and chemistry. She rhapsodises,
"Finding out the way in which everything, all of creation - all of it! - was held together by invisible chemical bonds, and I found a strange, inexplicable comfort in knowing that somewhere, even though we couldn't see it in our own world, there was a real stability.”
Flavia's voice is enjoyable and entertaining, but in trying to reconcile an 11-year-old girl with the character's voice, I had to continually force myself to suspend disbelief and ignore contradictions. Flavia is incredibly, improbably, and unbelievably precocious; she quotes easily from scientific authorities about brainstems and injections and from writers both classic and obscure. She also brings a strong flavor of world-weary cynicism that it is difficult to imagine an 11-year-old could have acquired. It requires a suspension of disbelief just to accept that an 11-year-old would have had sufficient time to develop such vast arrays of knowledge. However, I'm reasonably comfortable with that and with her absurdly high-flown vocabulary; it adds additional comedy and reminds me of Rameses from the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters. More difficult to accept was the inexplicably and inarguably masculine aspects of her voice. How many 11-year-old girls, especially in the 1950's, when the story is supposed to take place, go around noticing curvaceous figures or noting/describing a woman's breasts (in those words--her own mother's!) etc? This tendency to continue to focus on female sexual features even when trying to voice a female character seems to be a mistake that male writers constantly fall into, and I suppose Bradley is better than most. But supposedly, this kid hasn't even hit puberty! All the same, her voice was so entertaining that on some level, I just didn't care; for example:
“If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as "dearie." When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poison, and come to "Cyanide," I am going to put under "Uses" the phrase "Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one 'Dearie.'”
The characters and setting bring back the best of the Golden Age cozy mysteries. We have a cast of characters that seems to have been taken straight out of an Agatha Christie: a distant parent, a shell-shocked servant, a garrulous cook, an intense spinster, and the down-to-earth, intelligent police inspector (think Superintendent Battle). But what makes this novel stand out is the quirky amateur detective/protagonist: the 11-year-old Flavia. Flavia lightens the tone with her intense rivalry with her siblings, her almost psycopathic enjoyment of manipulating the adults around her, her obsession with trivial details, and her brilliant and wild flights of imagination. Even if there are a few peculiarities in the character's voice, Bradley has fully captured the capriciousness and energy of an 11-year-old and created an indomitable, quirky, and above all, captivating little protagonist.