You may not think that as august a personage as the Dean of Harvard College is a fan of mysteries, but he is, and so we have him to thank for directing us to Allan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series. The word quirky has been a bit over-used by student scribes this year with respect to the aforementioned Dean, but in this instance it is spot-on Bradley's first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Bantam, 2010).
The narrator, and Our Heroine, is a precocious 11 year old, living in a seen-better-days grand British country house. Her father is predictably distant (being British, after all, and a widower), her older sisters are self-absorbed, and there are a couple of (also predictably) loyal retainers who keep the place and the family more or less going. Left to her own devices, and with access to a big library and an unusually well-equipped private laboratory, Flavia has developed a particular interest in chemistry, and more specifically, the use of poisons. When she finds a man dying in the cucumber patch, her imagination takes flight, but when her father is fingered for the crime, she now has a cause. Riding a bicycle named Gladys and deploying an astonishing knowledge of the local landscape, Flavia charges around putting all sort of stories and clues and bits together and more or less solving both the murder and a few other problems on the way.
Our Flavia is a kind of a mid-century British Harriet the Spy. She even has a notebook, in which she records the results of experiments, etc. Unlike Harriet, she doesn't get in trouble because of her observations, mostly because no one is paying attention. But that's not to say that she doesn't, how shall we say, critique her fellow man:
"'And how may I help you, dearie?'
If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as 'dearie.' When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poisons, and come to 'Cyanide,' I am going to put under 'Uses' the phrase 'Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one 'Dearie.'" (62)
Ah, the British education system, that produces tweens who can properly use the word efficacious. If Flavia de Luce is not careful she will grow up to be Arthur Bryant.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is definitely a book for Anglophiles although amazingly, the author had never visited England before he won an award there for this book! (380) He's Canadian, though, and apparently feels British. "Eat your sandwiches, dear," says Mrs. Mullet, the housekeeper to Flavia. "There's nothing like cold meats in June - they're as good as a picnic." (78) Cold meats - how marvelously Jane Austen. And of course Buckshaw, the ancient family seat of the de Luces, had me at the broad stone staircase and the "pustulantly Victorian" east and west wings. (7) House envy has rescued many an otherwise dull story for me, but this time the story lives up to the promise offered by the pile, artificial lake, folly, and all. The whole tale takes place in June, one of the best months in England, when the promise of summer is still unfulfilled. "When I opened my eyes, an oyster-colored dawn was peeping in at my windows. The hands of my brass alarm clock stood at 3:44. On Summer Time, daylight came early, and less than a quarter of an hour, the sun should be up." (26) I don't know that you'd ever see an oyster-colored dawn anywhere but on that scepter'd isle.
The Sweetness was a fun and quick read, and I'll definitely continue through this series. Although I confess I'd not have picked up this book on my own. Seriously, who reads books with pre-teen protagonists? The Dean of Harvard College, apparently! I guess they are pretty smart there, after all.