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Thursday, June 11, 2009

What I'm Reading: Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: A Flavia de Luce Mystery If you are looking for a unique and original cozy mystery, I have a suggestion for you. It is 1950 in rural England and Flavia de Luce is an 11 year-old aspiring chemist with an interest in poisons. She lives in a country mansion, with her father and two older sisters. Early one morning, Flavia finds a man laying in their garden, taking his last breaths. The problem... late the evening before, Flavia had overheard her father arguing with this very same man. So begins an investigation into this strangers death; an investigation which involves rare stamps, a boys' school in the 1920s, and lots of intrigue and danger for young Flavia. But it is still a cozy, so not too much danger.

This is the set up for Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Canadian author, Alan Bradley which won the 2007 Dagger Award for best first crime novel. What is most endearing and entertaining about this novel is Flavia's voice. Bradley, was 11 himself in 1950 (so yes, he is a first time novelist in his 70s), and he understands the time period. For example, Flavia cannot just hop on the Internet to look things up; instead, she spends a lot of time in the musty stacks at her local public library. The book obviously won my heart right there.

Flavia is just old enough to look out for herself but her adventurous spirit has not yet been squashed by adulthood. She is still naive enough and her 1950s rural England world is still safe and small enough, that she takes the risks that keep the plot interesting. It would be hard to believe that an 11 year-old today could just slip away for the entire day, ride her bike all around the county, and have no one asking after her. But in the setting Bradley chose, it all seems fine.

The mystery was fresh and the 1950s setting was well recreated. Like most cozy mysteries I was interested in the characters more than the mystery itself. This is important to point out about cozy mysteries. If you really want a well defined mystery with lots of twists, a cozy is not for you. But if you want eccentric characters, an interesting setting, and a mystery without any explicit violence (the death happen on-stage, but is completely, and confoundingly, bloodless), this is the book for you.

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first in a projected trilogy. I would read the next one just to enter Flavia's world and narration again. Bradley made me care about Flavia, her family, and her friends enough that I would love to spend a few days with them again.

Other cozy mysteries with intriguing and original narrators that may appeal to readers of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie are the mysteries of Bradley's fellow Canadian Louise Penny. Her Three Pines mystery series is set in a small Quebec village. The first is Still Life.

If you liked the original voice and unique setting in Bradley's novel as well as the eccentric characters, you should also try Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. When I was reading Flavia's story I realized that I hadn't been so taken in by both a narrator and a setting since I had first read Precious Ramotswe's tale of solving problems in Botswana.

For more cozy reading suggestions, visit the Cozy Library.

A few reviews also mentioned how Flavia is reminiscent of Harriet the Spy.

Those who liked this book but want a little more sarcasm (this book has none), I would suggest Confessions of a Teen Sleuth by Chelsea Cain, which is the fictional biography of Nancy Drew.

In terms of nonfiction, readers may want to try these books about stamp collecting, poisons/chemistry, and rural England in the 1950s.

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