One evening, 11-year-old Flavia de Luce discovers a dead blackbird on her doorstep, a postage stamp impaled on its bill. Then, in the middle of the night, she finds a dying man in the cucumber patch, plunging her into the middle of murder. And we, Lucky Readers, are introduced to a brilliant, sassy and wickedly funny new sleuth.
For mystery buffs who feared that the old-fashioned crime novel, rife with red herrings, creaking doors and colorful characters had vanished with Agatha Christie, take heart. Flavia de Luce has arrived, complete with a bicycle she calls Gladys, a hidden chemistry lab in the murky attic of her crumbling Victorian family mansion, eccentric family members tended to by faithful servants, and a full-blown whodunit worthy of the best of cozies.
Flavia is a motherless young girl living in a 1920s English household better run by the cook and chauffeur than by her absent-minded father, the stamp-collecting banker who is also the squire of their small English village of Buckshaw. Flavia’s teenage sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, are acutely embarrassed by their precocious little sister and her penchant for brewing smelly potions and her bookish habits. Flavia’s chemical genius is fairly wasted on finding new ways to torment her sisters until the boredom of an English summer is catapulted into adventure with the discovery of the dead bird and the dying man. At last Flavia’s skills will be tested.
Don’t let Flavia’s youth or the book title lead you to believe that THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE is for young readers only. Flavia is wise beyond her years, and unless you pulled down “A’s” in chemistry class, her skill with a Bunsen burner and the periodic table will leave you in the dust. Not to worry --- you aren’t the one who needs to know what’s in some of the clues left behind by the murderer, and you don’t need to know the formula for distilling poison ivy leaves into… Well, I don’t want to provide spoilers, but let’s just say that, left to her own devices, Flavia holds her own. She cooks up equal portions of wicked potions and humor as she deals with Ophelia and Daphne, whose dysfunctional relationships lend comedic relief to the suspenseful hunt for a serial killer.
THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE has been favorably compared to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the popular mystery series by Alexander McCall Smith, which introduced one of recent mysterydom’s most unique detectives in decades. Indeed, Flavia de Luce is as unique as Precious Ramotswe; to compare the two is fair, but deceptive. Where Mma Ramotswe is sage, philosophical and solves crimes of conscience with the wisdom born of experience, Flavia charges into the fray with the brashness of youth. Mma Ramotswe would never find herself kidnapped and thrown into a cellar with the rats. Nor would she flee across the moors chased by a knife-wielding killer.
No, THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE is tart and spicy from the first delicious bite. Flavia’s newfound life as a detective is as secure as Mma Ramotswe’s, and we look forward to many years of enjoying both. We are promised that this is the first of a series, so we’re tucked up in our bib, eagerly awaiting the next delicious slice.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on April 27, 2009