Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

After hearing so many good things about Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries, I had high hopes for this book – and I wasn’t disappointed. It was every bit as enjoyable and delightful as I had been told it was.

Eleven year old Flavia de Luce, who wears her hair in pigtails and rides a bike called Gladys, most be one of the most unusual detectives in fiction. Her biggest passion is for chemistry – and more specifically, for poisons. She loves nothing more than spending time conducting experiments in her own fully equipped laboratory and her heroes include famous chemists such as Marie Paulze Lavoisier, Robert Bunsen and Henry Cavendish.

When a dead bird with a rare stamp impaled on its beak is found on the de Luces’ doorstep, Flavia is puzzled by the effect the discovery has on her father. Later, Flavia finds something much more sinister in the cucumber patch and when her father is accused of murder, she becomes determined to clear his name.

Although this wasn’t a particularly complex mystery, it was an interesting one, involving magic tricks, a sheet of Penny Black stamps and a slice of custard pie. There were parts of it that I could figure out quite easily but others that took me by surprise. I don’t often read mysteries anymore, but this book reminded me of exactly why I used to love them! However, the mystery itself is only one element of this book. I think due to the characters and the setting (which includes all the little period details that place the story firmly in 1950 and perfectly capture a small village atmosphere), this series could appeal even to non-mystery lovers.

The main reason I enjoyed this book so much was Flavia herself. She really is a wonderful character, innocent and lovable one minute, ruthless and vengeful the next (at the beginning of the book she runs away in tears when her sisters Ophelia and Daphne taunt her by pretending she’s adopted – and then proceeds to inject poison ivy into Ophelia’s lipstick). The chemistry aspect of the book particularly interested me as I have a degree in chemistry myself – although I was never as passionate as Flavia about the subject! She seems to have a PhD level grasp of the subject already. And her sphere of knowledge also encompasses literature, history, film and music. She’s so incredibly clever and independent that it’s easy to forget she’s only supposed to be eleven. There’s no way you would expect a real child of that age to speak or behave the way Flavia does – and yet somehow, in a strange way, I was able to overlook the fact that she’s so unrealistic and could accept her as a plausible character.

I’ve seen comparisons with Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy, but while I was reading this book I was also reminded of Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers series, which was also set in a small English village in the 1940s/50s and featured a group of children who always solved the mystery before the village policeman. I have no idea if Alan Bradley would have been inspired by those books at all, but there are definitely some similarities.

I loved this book and now I can’t wait to read The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag!

25 thoughts on “Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

  1. Amanda says:

    I’m not a mystery lover, but I really enjoyed this one! Sadly I tried to read the second book right after and I think reading them both in a row dampened the effect of the second. After about fifty pages, I put it away and am saving it for next year instead.

    Ooh I see in your sidebar that you’ll be reviewing The Monk soon! I can’t wait to see your thoughts. I’m about halfway through that one and having a great time with it. 😀

    • Helen says:

      I don’t have a copy of the second book yet so it will probably be a while before I get round to reading it. I’m looking forward to it, though!

      And I loved The Monk! I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying it too. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy it when you get round to reading it, Claire. There are just so many great books waiting to be read, aren’t there – and not enough hours in the day!

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t seen many negative reviews of this one. I’m so glad it didn’t disappoint me. And if you do read it, let me know if you agree with my Enid Blyton comparison!

  2. Carl V. says:

    Wonderful review of a wonderful book. Like you I found Flavia to be plausible despite the fact that it wouldn’t be common to run across a pre-teen with that kind of knowledge base. I never had to work to suspend belief, she just seemed so read. Kudos to Alan Bradley for writing such an engaging character.

    You also mention a really good point, which is that the mystery is only one aspect of the story. It doesn’t ultimately matter if the mystery itself is complex or not, because there is so much more going on with the characters that make these novels such a joy to read. I hope you enjoy the second book as much as Sweetness, whenever you get around to reading it.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think the fact that I loved this book so much was due to the characters more than the mystery itself. I’m looking forward to meeting Flavia and her family again in the second book. 🙂

  3. givingreadingachance says:

    This is one book everyone seems to have loved! And I really want to read this one too! You have done a great review, thank you 🙂

    • Helen says:

      Most people do seem to have enjoyed this one. I think it’s because it can appeal to people in so many different ways – even if you’re not interested in the mystery, you can still appreciate the characters, setting etc.

      • givingreadingachance says:

        Oh Helen, you won’t believe it but I got the ebook and I just fell in love with Flavia 🙂
        I am in the process of reading it – I am a slow reader 🙂

        Thank you for the review 🙂

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