“It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily through my nose, fighting desperately to remain calm.” So begins “Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,” the first book in the “Flavia de Luce” murder mystery series by Alan Bradley.
What appears to be a rather violent kidnapping is actually just the latest episode in a running battle between 11-year-old Flavia and her two older sisters, 13-year-old Daphne and 17-year-old Ophelia. Fortunately, Flavia turns out to be quite capable of holding her own against her sisters by using her love of chemistry to inflict the odd rash or occasional bout of indigestion on them.
Set in rural England in the early 1950s, the series follows Flavia as she travels the countryside seeking adventure on Gladys, her trusty two-wheeled steed and partner in all adventures. In many ways, Flavia is a youthful reincarnation of Don Quixote. Her ability to imagine all kinds of possibilities in ordinary situations makes a somewhat lonely childhood less boring. Coasting down a hill has little to do with gravity and more to do with Flavia giving Gladys her head and hanging on for dear life while shouting, “Yaroo!” In each book, Flavia uses chemistry, an insatiable curiosity and cheeky confidence to “assist” the local police in solving a murder.
Flavia is certainly precocious and cheeky, but she is also a vulnerable and innocent child. For example, while she has unerring aim when it comes to pushing her older sisters’ buttons, she is mystified by their interest in the opposite sex. The “11-year-old” in her also still believes in Santa Claus, but the scientist in her wants to set a trap to collect evidence of his existence.
And Flavia misses her mom, Harriet, who supposedly died when Flavia was just an infant. She has no real memories of her mother. A biplane that Harriet used to fly, which is now gathering dust in an old barn, is the most concrete connection Flavia has to her mom. The family doesn’t talk about how she died, and only gradually does Flavia learn that her mother disappeared while on a clandestine mission for the British government. You can only imagine the fuel that mystery provides for an already well-developed imagination.
Worse yet, Harriet’s disappearance, coupled with the family’s inability to find her will, has put the de Luce estate at risk of forfeiture. Finding the will becomes a continuing thread throughout the series.
Flavia will endear herself to you before you finish the first chapter of book one. You’ll smile, cringe and gasp as she turns her family’s world upside down in each of the ten books in the series, the most recent of which came out earlier this year. But most importantly, you’ll cheer Flavia on with each turn of the page. Yaroo!
Reviewer David Bross lives in Williamsport. He’s a retired elementary school teacher.