Saturday, 2 May 2015

book review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Alan Bradley.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.
Orion. 2009

Flavia de Luce is a precocious 11 year old, youngest of three sisters, possessing a fully equipped and operational chemistry lab in a remote corner of her family home, and the time and inclination to use it. Neglected by their remote father, the de Luce children spend much of their time playing cruel practical jokes on each other, and Flavia’s chemical knowledge is put to these ends, brewing poisons. Until, that is, she discovers a body in the garden, and her father is arrested. She turns her skill to investigation, discovering dark secrets about her father’s schooldays, and his stamps.

Several things didn’t ring true for me. For example, Flavia smelled a chemical smell on the dying man’s breath, but didn’t recognise it right until the end, when the plot demanded it, despite it being a simple smell that her broad chemical knowledge should have identified immediately. In fact, this kind of thing is used a lot: the precocious Flavia makes discoveries the police miss, then the 11 year old Flavia misses obvious things, as the plot demands.

And then, despite the blurb saying ‘England, 1950’, I had trouble locating this in time. One of the characters uses the word ‘copacetic’ [p.21], a US English word certainly not heard in the UK in the 1950s; however, he had fought in WWII, so maybe he learned it there. Nevertheless, it jarred. Then the inspector states that George VI is the king [p.40]. Okay, that’s compatible with 1950. But then there’s a very strange piece where the housekeeper is describing a particularly important postage stamp to the inspector:
p49. A postage stamp, sir – but not the ones you sees nowadays. Oh no – not like them at all. This here stamp had the Queen’s head on it. Not Her Present Majesty, God bless Her, but the old Queen … the Queen what was Queen Victoria.
If George VI is king as the inspector said, then ‘Her Present Majesty’ would refer to his wife, Elizabeth. But her head wasn’t on the stamps of the time, only the king’s. As far as I know, the only time her head was on a stamp was the 1937 coronation special.

In fact, George VI shared a stamp with Victoria, in 1940, the centenary of the first Penny Black stamps.

A native of the time would know what the stamps looked like, and would have more likely said: ‘This here stamp had the old Queen’s head on it – Queen Victoria wot was.’ So that must mean, despite what the inspector said earlier (sound of flipping pages back to check – yes, he did say it) this is actually set post 1952, post George VI, and Queen Elizabeth II is on the throne (or, more to the point, on the stamps)?

But no, it actually is set in 1950. Now, all this might sound like a lot of pedantry about a minor plot point. And okay, it is pedantry, but not about a minor plot point: tiny details about postage stamps, and the fact that George VI is still king, are utterly central to the plot. Those tiny details are certainly interesting, but can I now trust them?

So by page 49 I was in a bad mood, and my willing suspension of disbelief had precipitated out. Things didn’t really improve. The underlying plot is somewhat contrived and implausible (this is meant to be a detective mystery, not fantasy, so has rather different standards of plausibility from my usual fare), and the de Luce family are all deeply unpleasant. I feel the author was going for semi-humorous “eccentrically sweet” for Flavia, but actually hit “dangerous psychopath”. Having recently read a story of ridiculously precocious 11 and 12 year olds, and enjoyed it, such characters can be made compelling, but not here, I’m sorry to say.


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