Precocious child detectives and seemingly inexplicable murders make for rather odd bedfellows, but Alan Bradley proves that the two can get along — quite readily, in fact — in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.
This story takes place in the 1950s, and the protagonist is, like Bill Watterson's Calvin or Muriel Bradbury's Paloma, a child whose wit belies her years. In the tradition of Encyclopedia Brown and Cam Janson, Flavia de Luce is able to deduce what the adults often can't, and she solves the mystery quite handily, though murders make for a much heavier case than missing objects or faked hauntings.
In spite of the seriousness of the crime in question, the book stays well within the realm of tween-friendly reading, aside from some difficult language and the chemistry-related inserts that are esoteric but crucial to both Flavia's personality and, as one might surmise, her approach towards the task at hand: discovering the reason behind the corpse in the cucumber garden.
Like that of any good child prodigy, Flavia's voice is one laden with obscure, multisyllabic words, an acerbic cynicism, and a great deal of dry wit. Bradley avoids turning her into a mini-adult, however, by subtle reminders of her maturity level, which remains that of many an eleven-year-old. She fights with her sisters, albeit with more patience and planning than most children could manage, and generally fails to take their feelings into account when exacting revenge. She shades morality to suit her needs and considers herself to be wiser than those around her and immune to the rules that govern most in a shocking display of dishonesty that she uses both to collect clues and to save her own hide. One could hardly fault her for the latter.
My thought, as I delved deeper into the novel, is that Flavia displays many of the traits of a budding sociopath, particularly with her obsession with poisons and the readiness with which she manipulates others. Still, she does ultimately shows that she has a sense of right and wrong, something real sociopaths lack. The tricks that she plays on Ophelia, while vicious, stop short of causing truly serious harm. The concern she expresses for their well-being later in the novel reveals that she does indeed care about her family, even if the sentiment only surfaces in dire straits; this redeemed her somewhat in my eyes. All the same, her fascination with arsenic and cyanide is a tad worrisome.
A good portion of the story is spent with Flavia and Flavia alone, as she is generally left to her own devices as she bikes about the English countryside. I found this somewhat difficult to swallow. Though it is frequently mentioned that others were searching for her during her various absences, it does seem rather unlikely that an eleven-year-old would be so poorly looked after. The freedom with which she generates toxic compounds in her private laboratory boggles the mind, especially when her father was purported to take much delight in her brilliance and her scientific proclivities.
The story itself is replete with red herrings, and it was refreshing to see that the heroine was thrown as readily as the reader. Some parts of the actual solution seem a bit much; however, the overall sequence of events makes sense if one can suspend disbelief over those points. I did feel validated when my original suspect of choice turned out to be correct for once. Sort of. I won't say any more in an effort to avoid spoiling the storyline, but suffice it to say that this is a book that both older children and adults can enjoy, and I look forward to reading about the further exploits of Flavia de Luce.