Monday, 4 January 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Published 2009

Eleven year-old Flavia de Luce has a single overriding passion: chemistry. Happily her ancestral home happens to have a well-stocked laboratory to hand (thanks to eccentric Uncle Tarquin), so that when she discovers a body in the cucumber patch, she is immediately able to embark on an investigation.
What starts as an effort to put the senior police officer in his place (he has asked her to rustle up some tea for his team, a demand which quite naturally puts her back up) becomes more urgent when her father is arrested for murder.

Alan Bradley's debut crime novel is a lovely piece of work. From the first page, Flavia's voice is sharp and precocious, and flashes of pure 11 year-old malice vie with the wisdom acquired through an extensive self-education. With her older sisters she's a near monster, but her position as youngest sibling in a motherless family has taught her survival, and her sangfroid born out of their shared reluctance to acknowledge familial affection stands her in good stead when she falls into the hands of a ruthless murderer. Her prickly relationship with Inspector Hewitt is straight from the Golden Age of crime fiction, while her deduction of the murder method - necessary because the Inspector sees no need to share the post mortem findings with a small girl, adds a nice touch. So too the choice of murder weapon, very much of its period. As for the chapter at the end, the one-where-all is-explained, both atmosphere and exposition were worthy of Agatha Christie.