Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

Source of Book: I own this. (Thanks to the community property law of California)
Date originally posted on Facebook: May 26, 2010

This book was suggested to me by my wife and my mother-in-law. Since both of them are well read and have excellent taste, how could I refuse?

I have a little bit of a weakness for murder mysteries myself. I suppose I should blame my mother for this one, who introduced me to Nancy Drew at age 9, and Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” soon after. Now my library includes the complete Father Brown (G. K. Chesterton), a bunch of Dorothy Sayers, and plenty of Christie, of course.

Alan Bradley is a Canadian author who wrote this, his first novel, at age 70. The book is set in England in the ‘50s.

I intentionally mentioned Nancy Drew, as I believe this was a major inspiration for the book. Plenty have already cited Harriet the Spy, which is plausible. However, I am ready to out Bradley as a closet Nancy Drew reader. The plot follows a familiar line, to be sure, although the writing is both more grown up, and less boilerplate. The heroine in this novel is Flavia De Luce, age 11, with a precocious interest in chemistry. Poisons in particular. Back when Nancy Drew first entered the literary scene, 18 seemed to still be an age of relative innocence. Now, 11 better fits the bill.

In addition to a well conceived plot and well polished writing, I enjoyed several other facets. Bradley is obviously well read, and sneaks literary and artistic references into the story. Discovering these is a little like a treasure hunt, as they often appear buried in the narrative. I also particularly enjoyed the fact that the chemistry is correct. Too often, this is more approximate than a science should be. (I recall an article that referred to sodium bicarbonate as having two carbon atoms…) The particulars of this plot made me imagine a person poisoned by cyanide gulping cheap hot dogs for the sodium nitrate.

In all, I would say that this book is well worth the time, and may be the start of a promising series. Likeable characters, and the combination of the American and British style of mystery make this a promising new addition to the genre.


  1. I'm out of order in my Google reader. :)

    At any rate, I liked this one. Bought the second and it was sitting on my shelf. I'm going to remain annoyed until I get it back.

    1. The second book is good too, but a bit different than the first. I'll eventually get around to re-posting my review of that one on the blog. Here's hoping you get back home soon!