May 06, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Sweetness At the Bottom Of the Pie

Current Status
In Season
Alan Bradley
Fiction, Mystery and Thriller
We gave it an A-

When Flavia de Luce — the 11-year-old heroine of Alan Bradley’s sophisticated, series-launching crime novel The Sweetness At the Bottom Of the Pie — finds a man dying in the garden of her family estate, she crouches beside his body and watches with scientific detachment as he expires, taking note of the ”fluttering fingers, ? the almost imperceptible bronze metallic cloudiness that appeared on the skin.”

It’s the summer of 1950 in the idyllic English countryside, dotted with mist-invaded fields, crumbling stone walls, rolling lanes, and once-grand estates like Buckshaw, where Flavia lives with two older sisters (who are? ”absorbed in book and looking-glass,” respectively) and an aloof, widowed father who prefers to stay indoors with his world-class stamp collection. But it’s been a strange week at Buckshaw. First a dead bird with an antique stamp pierced ominously over its beak appeared on the family’s doorstep, and now a corpse has materialized in the ? cucumber patch. Even before her father is arrested for the murder, Flavia (a chemistry whiz with a ”particular passion” for poison and deduction) is on the case.

Flavia is scheming, fearless, and brilliant, but she’s still only 11 — her sole means of transportation is a BFA Keep Fit bicycle, and she’s often dismissed as a pint-size meddler. She decides to investigate the crime in the ? Victorian chemistry lab at Buckshaw and at the town archives. As she processes evidence and pieces together clues, she discovers that her father may be linked ? to the victim through the old boys’ school Greyminster.

For all of the book’s cleverness (the title alone threatens a storm of cuteness), Alan Bradley never loses touch with the darker realities of this rustic English paradise: a town still haunted by the atrocities of World War II and trying to regain its footing in daily life. Flavia’s real detective strength is getting adults to tell her what they remember — in a place where no one wants to talk about the past. In Sweetness, disappointment creeps in only when you sense the plot tilting toward its final scenes. If a few of those feel inevitable, that’s all right. It’s a rare pleasure to follow Flavia as she investigates her limited but boundless-feeling world. And it’s nice to know she’ll be back. A-

You May Like