I’ll be the first to admit that my shelf of to-be-read books gets overloaded and dusty at times. Some of the novels on the bottom of the stack are so far from recent their publication buzz has long since faded to silence.
If I mention Alan Bradley’s mystery, THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE, to people, I get either a blank look or a quick shrug with the comment, “Sure, I’ve read that!”
So I’m late to the party with this one. I think Bradley has added two or more novels to the series about little Flavia de Luce since PIE was published. Still, who says we have to read books the instant they’re published? Maybe you’re like me, not quite sure about PIE’s premise or its odd title.
All I can say is, Don’t be as slow as I was to pick it up!
Set in England during 1950, only five short years following the ravages of WWII, PIE is a delight from start to finish. Flavia’s entry action in the opening pages is so characteristic of her. It leaves a memorable first impression, plus it foreshadows a later event.
Back in cave-dwelling times, when my writing career as a professional novelist was just beginning, I sent Official Manuscript #2 to my New York agent. It was a young adult adventure set in the Middle Ages. She called me to have a serious talk about whether I intended to write more books for kids. (Please realize that in cave-dwelling times, a long distance phone call was a big deal.)
In 1980, the kids’ market was all but dead in the water. My agent advised me away from that direction, fearing that I intended to target my fledgling career toward a dead end. Should I repeat the word dead one more time in emphasis?
Neither of us could see into the future, much less predict that today the young adult market would rule.
Nevertheless, in 1980 editors would have glanced at the opening pages of PIE, seen that the protagonist is eleven, and rejected it because they weren’t interested back then in publishing children’s fiction.
Let’s get this point established: PIE may be about a child, but it’s not a book written for children. Flavia is as smart as any adult protagonist. The little genius is a clever investigator, and her youth keeps her constantly on the move. The book doesn’t plod. It doesn’t bog down in the middle. The plot twists do their job well, and the clues are puzzlers.
Beyond the central plotline, we have several subplots to keep things lively. Flavia’s ongoing rivalry with her eldest sister Ophelia leads to some brow-raising methods of revenge. The poignant character Dogger, so faithful to Flavia’s father, may be the loyal servant, but he’s more than a stock character as he gives Flavia the emotional support that she critically needs–although she’d rather die than admit it.
The backstory of Flavia’s beautiful mother injects another layer of mystery to the tale. Add several small threads about various villagers, and you have a complex, fast-paced, intricate mystery with a good villain and a very real dose of danger.
Although Bradley’s a Canadian author, he’s managed to evoke a believable post-war England setting. If you’re an Anglophile, enjoy yourself. If you’re not up to speed on mid-century British slang and customs, let alone some of the famous movie stars of the ’50s, you may find yourself puzzled by more than the mystery. Don’t let that keep you away, however.
Just find a comfy chair, put your feet up, set a cup of tea or cocoa at your elbow, and enjoy turning the pages.