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

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Three stars, read in 2010.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a murder mystery starring a precocious eleven-year-old British girl and her eccentric family. To be honest, I’m not sure what the appeal of the book was to me; I did enjoy reading it, but when I think back on it, I can’t remember why.

One thing that bothered me was the outrageous number of allusions and pop culture references. There are significantly more than is normal. I recognized many of them—Scrooge and Marley, Ophelia, the Vitruvian Man, Miss Gulch, “Bibbidi-bobbidy-boo”, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Laurence Olivier, Manderley, etc. But many were totally obscure to me: Austin Freeman, Mario Lanza, Hebrides, Rosicrucians, Dr. Crippen, Douglas Bader, J. Arthur Rank, Jose Iturbi, John Bull, We Dive at Dawn, and dozens of others—not to mention countless references to various Catholic saints, classical musicians, and super old cars.

I wasn’t kidding about this.

There are times, too, when the writing feels affected and pretentious.

I knew that Father derived endless pleasure from the countless and minute variations of his bits of confetti, but I did not know the details. Only when he became excited enough over some new tidbit of trivia in the latest issue of The London Philatelist to rhapsodize aloud at breakfast would we learn a little more about his happy, insulated world. Apart from those rare occasions, we were all of us, my sisters and me, babes in the wood when it came to postage stamps, while Father puttered on, mounting bits of colored paper with more fearsome relish than some men mount the heads of stags and tigers (145).

Babes in the woods when it came to postage stamps?? I just can’t quite digest that phrase.

But the story is quite interesting. Flavia de Luce, who is obsessed with chemistry and knows way more things than it is possible for a child to know (she’s the one who makes all the aforementioned allusions), has a very exciting day in which a dead bird with a postage stamp on its beak shows up on their doorstep; she overhears her father having an argument with someone in his study late at night; and early the next morning, goes outside just in time to watch a stranger die in their cucumber patch. Because she is just that kind of child, Flavia investigates the murder, and wild antics ensue.

I have to admit that I’m a bit baffled by this book. I can’t say I think the story was particularly inventive, although it was interesting; I didn’t even like Flavia all that much (although I didn’t dislike her either). I’m having a strangely difficult time organizing my feelings about it. At the time, my impression of it was favorable, but the further I get from it the less interested I am in the rest of the series.

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