Monday, January 10, 2011

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

by Alan Bradley
Star Rating: 2 out of 4

I feel kind of bad that I didn't much like this book. My mom recommended it to me because she really loved the main character and the use of chemistry. Now, I am not a chemistry person. I'm not even generally a mystery person; the only series I'll pick up voluntarily are Simenon's Maigrets and Peters' Brother Cadfaels. I've read several Agatha Christies and don't feel much compelled to read any more, and I struck out terribly on Lord Peter Wimsey, though I'm determined to give him another try someday. So I think this book simply wasn't my cup of java.

The main character is 11-year-old Flavia de Luce (in passing - what a name! It rivals Benedict Cumberbatch for pure naminess), a curious and precocious young lady with a great talent and fascination for chemistry. She lives with her two older sisters (Ophelia and Daphne...ouch) and her father, the former of whom tie Flavia up and lock her in closets for fun. (Being the youngest of three daughters myself, I can slightly empathize with Flavia's daily hardships, though I was only ever tied to a pole in the basement and burned at the stake, and it was all in good fun.) Things begin to accelerate when a dead bird with a stamp in its mouth is left on the front doorstep and the next day a dead body is discovered in the garden. Flavia's father is arrested on suspicion of murder, and Flavia, being Flavia and therefore almost impossibly precocious, decides to solve things.

Making an 11-year-old your main character clearly has its pitfalls. Flavia is alternately brilliant or dense as the story requires, and while that's probably reasonable... maybe... it's never clear to me whether this is all done by design or whether the author simply needed the innocence of a child to cover up his deficiencies at creating a compelling mystery. Was I the only one who guessed the murderer the same page that s/he appeared? I can't have been. It was too obvious. And yes, I do realize that just about every mystery plot has been exhausted by now... but simple Economy of Characters makes it clear. Couldn't Bradley have thrown in one or two skulky bystanders with scars and limps to broaden the field?

The only unpredictability as far as I could see was the chemistry element, but even that employed the old Sherlock Holmes trick, where of course Holmes will solve it when you can't because Holmes has some sneaky bit of esoteric knowledge to whip out of his deerstalker. Flavia smells a particular scent on the murdered man's breath just before he passes to the great beyond (he also utters the Latin word "Vale," which seems a rather natural thing to say upon dying to me if you, um, know Latin), but of course she doesn't identify it until late in the book. We poor suckers aren't even told what it smelled like in order to do a surreptitious Google search. Pooh, I say.

The thing is, I didn't find Flavia very interesting to spend time with. For a girl so imaginative when it comes to thinking up revenges against her nasty sisters, I found her thinking style (and hence the writing) awfully dull. She's very lively when it comes to interactions with other characters though, especially the police inspector in charge of the case, who's wonderfully world-weary and an excellent balance for Flavia's exuberance. Still, by the end of the book I was so annoyed with her that I started skipping paragraphs until the action started up again; my conscience smote me after a day or two and I went back and read them, only to discover I'd missed absolutely nothing. My favorite portion of the novel comes around the middle, where Flavia bikes to the prison where her father is being held and he tells her his story, mostly because a) the story is interesting, and b) it's not Flavia.

I am judgmental. I hang my head. I have to make great effort to differentiate between when I don't like a book and when the book's actually bad, and because I'm thinking it's the former, I'm giving Sweetness 2 out of 4 out of fairness. I don't think it's a bad book, but neither Flavia nor the mystery worked for me.

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