In his wickedly clever debut mystery, Alan Bradley introduces the one and only Flavia de Luce: a refreshingly precocious, sharp, and impertinent 11-year old heroine who goes through a bizarre maze of mystery and deception. Bradley designs Bishop’s Lacey, a 1950s village, Buckshaw, the de Luce’s crumbling Gothic mansion, and reproduces the hedges, gently rolling hills, and battered lanes of the countryside with explicit detail. Suspense mounts up as Flavia digs up long-buried secrets after the corpse of an ominous stranger emerges in the cucumber patch of her country estate. Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie features a plethora of unforeseen twists and turns; it is surely a rich literary delight.
The band of characters is drawn from every level of the class system. Unique interactions among characters from different social standings are conveyed, from the distressed, kindly gardener, to the impertinent daughter of the village innkeeper, to the prosperous de Luce family, and to the royalty. What appealed to me was that Flavia could trace her family’s history back many generations, and for one to be able to make these personal connections is extremely rare. Of course, this awareness of their past is correlated to the de Luce’s chain of affluence.
Five years following the Second World War, the setting of 1950s England is skillfully illustrated, as the nation is no longer much of a powerhouse. The way of life that has fulfilled the de Luce family is waning, as economic realism and modern life approach the under-funded country pile. Bradley captures the distinct era in history, a mixture of post-war adversity and the Empire coming to its end. Flavia is bemused; uninformed of the physiological effects the war had placed on Dogger, her father’s man, who suffers from shell-shock, or what we call “post-traumatic stress” today. There is, however, a singular relationship between Flavia and Dogger who is fully non-judgmental, and she interacts with him very differently than she does with others. Flavia also struggles to bring together the man her father is at home with the man he was as a soldier. Both men had witnessed very difficult military service, and although Flavia attempts to get them and other residents to speak of their memories, most of them refuse to say a thing. Wishing to disregard the aching wounds of the past, the British tend to bottle up their emotions.
The atmosphere the author has created is definitely idyllic; people could step outside unharmed, whereas today, we are exposed to a variety of types of violence and threats. It is a simple, hassle-free world which runs at a bicycle and bus pace, with a special homeliness that is not overly-sentimental, constantly prompting the reader that once upon a time, short opening hours, dusty old newspapers, and gossip about neighbors rather than celebrities were the facts of life. This setting provides enough latitude for Flavia to squander long hours unsupervised without...