Quill & Quire
Last year, Alan Bradley made a splash in the mystery world with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which introduced 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, one of the most original and charming sleuths to appear in recent memory. Flavia spends her time concocting noxious substances in the makeshift basement laboratory of her family’s home in a quiet English village, tormenting (and being tormented by) her older sisters Ophelia and Daphne, and doing her best to be a dutiful daughter to her somewhat absent-minded widower father. Suffice to say Flavia is a great deal wiser than her 11 years, though her maturity seems appropriate for the early 1950s time frame.
As Sweetness demonstrated, Flavia is also a sharp-witted amateur detective, able to skilfully deduce who laced a freshly baked pie with poison. The novel’s success, however, owed less to its plot than to Flavia’s acerbic, first-person voice, and to a newfound resurgence in classical mystery stories that have been tweaked for a 21st-century readership.
Bradley marshals these elements for the equally delightful sequel, the first page of which finds Flavia “lying dead in the churchyard.” As the precocious youngster plays at being a corpse, she makes macabre references to her own gravestone and the imagined reactions of her family members to her untimely demise. Flavia’s fun is spoiled when she stumbles upon a woman “stretched out full length, facedown on the slab of a limestone tomb, her red hair flowing out across the weathered inscription like rivulets of blood.” The only evidence that the woman is alive comes from “the cigarette wedged stylishly erect between her fingers.”
The ginger-haired lady is Nialla, assistant to the diminutive yet somehow larger-than-life Rupert Porson, the brains behind England’s most famous children’s show, The Magic Kingdom. Porson has agreed to put on a live performance of Porson’s Puppets, his travelling puppet show, at the parish hall. He takes a shine to Flavia and recruits her as his second assistant in the run-up to the performance.
It should come as no surprise that murder soon intrudes, and that Flavia gets mixed up in the whole thing, leading to an Agatha Christie-esque climax in which all the suspects are gathered round so that the young detective can unmask the culprit (once certain suspicions are confirmed and theories proven, of course).
Well before that, however, Bradley – by way of Flavia’s caustic, unwittingly winsome narrative voice – offers some nifty portraits of the story’s supporting players. For example, Cynthia Richardson, the vicar’s wife, acts the very essence of propriety, but, in Flavia’s estimation, can’t quite pull it off: “By all reports, she was a saint, a tiger, a beacon of hope to the sick, and a comfort to the bereaved. Her good works were legendary.… And yet.… There was something about her posture that just didn’t ring true: a horrid slackness, a kind of limp and tired defeat that might be seen in the faces and bodies of Blitz victims in the wartime issues of the Picture Post. But in a vicar’s wife…?”
Or take Felicity, Flavia’s visiting aunt, a force of nature who terrifies the seemingly unflappable sleuth-in-training with regular edicts to “carry on the glorious name of de Luce.” What Felicity means by this is very clear: “You must never be deflected by unpleasantness.… Even when it leads to murder.” Ophelia and Daphne, who spend much time disapproving of Flavia’s “unhealthy fascination with death” are no match for such conviction, and those who dare to underestimate the steely determination and analytical precision of the tough pre-pubescent detective do so at their own peril.
The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag works more as an outright sequel to the earlier book than as a stand-alone novel, so readers new to the series may need to consult the previous novel to get up to speed on Flavia’s family dynamics and love of all things poisonous. Once they do, however, they will find themselves catapulted into Bradley’s vividly drawn simulacrum of a small English village, and his crisp depiction of intruders from the big city who act as catalysts to uncover the festering rot lurking beneath seemingly close-knit relationships.
The secret of the novel’s charm involves the way in which Flavia teeters on the border between precocity and childishness, spouting faux-cynical epithets that result from the fact that her intellectual gifts far outpace her emotional capacity. The bittersweet flavour that’s hidden in the mix of The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag – and which will perhaps develop over the course of later books – arises from the realization that as Flavia reaches intellectual and emotional equilibrium, her sleuthing ability may plateau as well.
And so, we have a potential dilemma: will Flavia remain forever on the cusp of womanhood and expected domesticity, a proto-pioneer in matters toxicological? After two books, this is a mystery readers will be eager to solve.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“One of the hottest reads of 2009.”
— The Times (U.K.)
“Sure in its story, pace and voice, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie deliciously mixes all the ingredients of great storytelling. The kind of novel you can pass on to any reader knowing their pleasure is assured.”
— Andrew Pyper, acclaimed author of The Killing Circle
“A wickedly clever story, a dead true and original voice, and an English country house in the summer: Alexander McCall Smith meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Please, please, Mr. Bradley, tell me we will be seeing Flavia again soon?”
— Laurie R. King, bestselling author of The Game
“Alan Bradley brews a bubbly beaker of fun in his devilishly clever, wickedly amusing debut mystery, launching an eleven-year-old heroine with a passion for chemistry — and revenge! What a delightful, original book!”
— Carolyn Hart, award-winning author of Death Walked In
“Alan Bradley’s marvelous book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, is a fantastic read, a winner. Flavia walks right off the page and follows me through my day. I can hardly wait for the next book. Bravo.”
— Louise Penny, acclaimed author of Still Life
“The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is an absolute treat. It is original, clever, entertaining and funny. Bradley, whose biography suggests he did not spend a great deal of time in 1950s rural England where his novel is set, has captured a moment in time perfectly.”
— Material Witness (e-zine)
“If ever there were a sleuth who’s bold, brilliant, and, yes, adorable, it’s Flavia de Luce, the precocious 11-year-old at the center of this scrumptious first novel… Her sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, and the loyal family retainer, Dogger, are among the book’s retinue of outstanding characters.”
— USA Today
“Oh how astonishing and pleasing is genuine originality! . . . I simply cannot recall the last time I so enjoyed being in the company of a first-person narrator…. This is a book which triumphantly succeeds in its objectives of charming and delighting. And on top of that it is genuinely original.”
— Reviewing the Evidence (e-zine)
“Like just about everybody else I've been reading — just finished reading, in fact — Alan Bradley’s altogether admirable The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. It made me very happy, for all kinds of reasons: for its humour, for the wonderful invention of the 11-year-old chemist-detective Flavia de Luce, for its great attention to period detail, and mostly because it was so deft and assured, from top to tail.”
— CBC Radio host Bill Richardson, in The Globe and Mail
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Bradley was the first President of the Saskatoon Writers, and a founding member of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. His children’s stories were published in The Canadian Children’s Annual and his short story “Meet Miss Mullen” was the first recipient of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild Award for Children’s Literature.
For a number of years, Alan regularly taught scriptwriting and television production courses at the University of Saskatchewan. His fiction has been published in literary journals and he has given many public readings in schools and galleries. His short stories have been broadcast by CBC Radio, and his lifestyle and humour pieces have appeared in The Globe and Mail and The National Post.
Alan Bradley was also a founding member of The Casebook of Saskatoon, a society devoted to the study of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlockian writings. There, he met the late Dr. William A.S. Sarjeant, with whom he collaborated on the classic book Ms. Holmes of Baker Street (1989). This work put forth the startling theory that the Great Detective was a woman, and was greeted upon publication with what has been described as “a firestorm of controversy.” As he’s explained in interviews, Bradley was always an avid reader of mysteries, even as a child: “My grandmother used to press them upon us when we were very young. One of the first books she gave me was Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Holiday. I was profoundly influenced by it.”
Upon retirement, Bradley began writing full time. His next book, The Shoebox Bible (2006), has been compared with Tuesdays With Morrie and Mister God, This is Anna. In this beautiful memoir, Bradley tells the story of his early life in southern Ontario, and paints a vivid portrait of his mother, a strong and inspirational woman who struggled to raise three children on her own during tough times.
In July of 2007, Bradley won the Debut Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009), based on a sample that would become the first novel in a series featuring eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. As Bradley has explained, it was the character of Flavia that inspired him to embark upon the project: “I started to write The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie in the spring of 2006. Flavia walked into another novel I was writing as an incidental character, and she hijacked the book. Although I didn’t finish that book, Flavia stuck with me.” The Dagger award brought international attention to Bradley’s fiction debut, and Sweetness and the additional novels planned for the series will be published in twenty-eight languages and in more than thirty countries.
Alan Bradley lives in Malta with his wife Shirley and two calculating cats. He is currently working on the third novel starring Flavia de Luce, A Red Herring Without Mustard.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I was lying dead in the churchyard. an hour had crept by since the mourners had said their last sad farewells.
At twelve o'clock, just at the time we should otherwise have been sitting down to lunch, there had been the departure from Buckshaw: my polished rosewood coffin brought out of the drawing room, carried slowly down the broad stone steps to the driveway, and slid with heartbreaking ease into the open door of the waiting hearse, crushing beneath it a little bouquet of wild flowers that had been laid tenderly inside by one of the grieving villagers.
Then there had been the long drive down the avenue of chestnuts to the Mulford Gates, whose rampant griffins looked away as we passed, though whether in sadness or in apathy I would never know.
Dogger, Father's devoted jack-of-all-trades, had paced in measured step alongside the slow hearse, his head bowed, his hand resting lightly on its roof, as if to shield my remains from something that only he could see. At the gates, one of the undertaker's mutes had finally coaxed him, by using hand signals, into a hired motor car.
And so they had brought me to the village of Bishop's Lacey, passing sombrely through the same green lanes and dusty hedgerows I had bicycled every day when I was alive.
At the heaped-up churchyard of St Tancred's, they had taken me gently from the hearse and borne me at a snail's pace up the path beneath the limes. Here, they had put me down for a moment in the new-mown grass.
Then had come the service at the gaping grave, and there had been a note of genuine grief in the voice of the vicar, as he pronounced the traditional words.
It was the first time I'd heard the Order for the Burial of the Dead from this vantage point. We had attended last year, with Father, the funeral of old Mr Dean, the village greengrocer. His grave, in fact, was just a few yards from where I was presently lying. It had already caved in, leaving not much more than a rectangular depression in the grass which was, more often than not, filled with stagnant rainwater.
My oldest sister, Ophelia, said it collapsed because Mr Dean had been resurrected, and was no longer bodily present, while Daphne, my other sister, said it was because he had plummeted through into an older grave whose occupant had disintegrated.
I thought of the soup of bones below: the soup of which I was about to become just another ingredient.
Flavia Sabina de Luce, 1939-1950, they would cause to be carved on my gravestone, a modest and tasteful grey marble thing with no room for false sentiments.
Pity. If I'd lived long enough, I'd have left written instructions calling for a touch of Wordsworth:
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.
And if they'd baulked at that, I'd have left this as my second choice:
Truest hearts by deeds unkind
To despair are most inclined.
Only Feely, who had played and sung them at the piano, would recognise the lines from Thomas Campion's Third Book of Airs, and she would be too consumed by guilty grief to tell anyone.
My thoughts were interrupted by the vicar's voice.
"…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body…"
And suddenly they had gone, leaving me there alone - alone to listen for the worms.
This was it: the end of the road for poor Flavia.
By now the family would already be back at Buckshaw, gathered round the long refectory table: Father seated in his usual stony silence, Daffy and Feely hugging one another with slack, tear-stained faces as Mrs Mullet, our cook, brought in a platter of baked meats.
I remembered something that Daffy had once told me when she was devouring The Odyssey: that baked meats, in ancient Greece, were traditional funeral fare, and I had replied that in view of Mrs Mullet's cooking, not much had changed in two and a half thousand years.
But now that I was dead, I thought, perhaps I ought to practise being somewhat more charitable.
Dogger, of course, would be inconsolable. Dear Dogger: butler-cum-chauffeur-cum-valet-cum-gardener-cum-estate-manager: a poor shell-shocked soul whose capabilities ebbed and flowed like the Severn tides; Dogger, who had recently saved my life and forgotten it by the next morning. I should miss him terribly.
And I should miss my chemistry laboratory. I thought of all the golden hours I'd spent there in that abandoned wing of Buckshaw, blissfully alone among the flasks, the retorts and the cheerily bubbling tubes and beakers. And to think that I'd never see them again. It was almost too much to bear.
I listened to the rising wind as it whispered overhead in the branches of the yew trees. It was already growing cool here in the shadows of St Tancred's tower, and it would soon be dark.
Poor Flavia! Poor stone-cold-dead Flavia.
By now, Daffy and Feely would be wishing that they hadn't been so downright rotten to their little sister during her brief eleven years on this earth.
At the thought, a tear started down my cheek.
Would Harriet be waiting to welcome me to Heaven?
Harriet was my mother, who had died in a mountaineering accident a year after I was born. Would she recognise me after ten years? Would she still be dressed in the mountain-climbing suit she was wearing when she met her end, or would she have swapped it by now for a white robe?
Well, whatever she was wearing, I knew it would be stylish.
There was a sudden clatter of wings: a noise that echoed loudly from the stone wall of the church, amplified to an alarming volume by a half-acre of stained glass and the leaning gravestones that hemmed me in. I froze.
Could it be an angel - or more likely, an archangel - coming down to return Flavia's precious soul to Paradise? If I opened my eyes the merest slit, I could see through my eyelashes, but only dimly.
No such luck: it was one of the tattered jackdaws that were always hanging round St Tancred's. These vagabonds had been nesting in the tower since its thirteenth-century stonemasons had packed up their tools and departed.
Now the idiotic bird had landed clumsily on top of a marble finger that pointed to Heaven, and was regarding me coolly, its head cocked to one side, with its bright, ridiculous boot-button eyes.
Jackdaws never learn. No matter how many times I played this trick, they always, sooner or later, came flapping down from the tower to investigate. To the primeval mind of a jackdaw, any body horizontal in a churchyard could have only one meaning: food.
As I had done a dozen times before, I leapt to my feet and flung the stone that was concealed in my curled fingers. I missed—but then I nearly always did.
With an "awk" of contempt, the thing sprang into the air and flapped off behind the church, towards the river.
Now that I was on my feet, I realised I was hungry. Of course I was! I hadn't eaten since breakfast. For a moment I wondered vaguely if I might find a few leftover jam tarts or a bit of cake in the kitchen of the parish hall. The St Tancred's Ladies' Auxiliary had gathered the night before, and there was always the chance.
As I waded through the knee-high grass, I heard a peculiar snuffling sound, and for a moment I thought the saucy jackdaw had come back to have the last word.
I stopped and listened.
And then it came again.
I find it sometimes a curse and sometimes a blessing that I have inherited Harriet's acute sense of hearing, since I am able, as I am fond of telling Feely, to hear things that would make your hair stand on end. One of the sounds to which I am particularly attuned is the sound of someone crying.
It was coming from the north-west corner of the churchyard - from somewhere near the wooden shed in which the sexton kept his grave-digging tools. As I crept slowly forward on tiptoe, the sound grew louder: someone was having a good old-fashioned cry, of the knock-'em-down-drag-'em-out variety.
It is a simple fact of nature that while most men can walk right past a weeping woman as if their eyes are blinkered and their ears stopped up with sand, no female can ever hear the sound of another in distress without rushing instantly to her aid.
I peeped round a black marble column, and there she was, stretched out full length, face down on the slab of a limestone tomb, her red hair flowing out across the weathered inscription like rivulets of blood. Except for the cigarette wedged stylishly erect between her fingers, she might have been a painting by one of the Pre-Raphaelites, such as Burne-Jones. I almost hated to intrude.
"Hullo," I said. "Are you all right?"
It is another simple fact of nature that one always begins such conversations with an utterly stupid remark. I was sorry the instant I'd uttered it.
"Oh! Of course I'm all right," she cried, leaping to her feet and wiping her eyes. "What do you mean by creeping up on me like that? Who are you, anyway?"
With a toss of her head she flung back her hair and stuck out her chin. She had the high cheekbones and the dramatically triangular face of a silent cinema star, and I could see by the way she bared her teeth that she was terrified.
"Flavia," I said. "My name is Flavia de Luce. I live near here - at Buckshaw."
I jerked my thumb in the general direction.
She was still staring at me like a woman in the grip of a nightmare.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to startle you."
She pulled herself up to her full height - which couldn't have been much more than five feet and an inch or two - and took a step towards me, like a hot-tempered version of the Botticelli Venus that I'd once seen on a Huntley and Palmer's biscuit tin.
I stood my ground, staring at her dress. It was a creamy cotton print with a gathered bodice and a flaring skirt, covered al...