“The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” and “The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag” by Alan Bradley

If Flavia de Luce offers you tea, don’t accept it. At the very least, she’s trying to trick you into an untimely admission—but, really, it’s probably poisoned. Don’t worry, though: she’s just trying to solve a murder.

Though she lives in the idyllic 1950s village of St. Tancreds, England—author Bradley’s a Canadian retiree, so expect nostalgia rather than racial tensions or post-War rationing—there isn’t anything very conventional about Flavia. Well, she is an annoying kid, kind of a know-it-all, and that’s a type we’re all familiar with, but once you get past her spotty-faced brashness, and even leave aside her prankish sense of fun, she has a remarkable mind.

Sherlock Holmes can identify brands of tobacco from their ashes, but, after a trip to the laboratory she inherited from her uncle, Flavia can give you the exact chemical composition of anything. Did I mention she’d then find a way to make it poisonous?

Remarkably, Flavia isn’t at the center of either of these revenge plots—either as poisoner or poisonee. As antiheroic as Flavia is, the mysterious red-haired man who turns up dead at the end of her garden and the cruelly violent puppeteer who’s electrocuted during a church hall show are vastly more despicable, with plenty of enemies willing to put them in the ground.

 Flavia’s debut in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is as delicious as the name suggests. Flavia’s chemical quirks combine with a cast of equally interesting characters—her mother, the dead mountaineer; shell-shocked veteran and friendly gardener, Dogger;  or Mrs. Mullet, the cook whose nose spends more time in other people’s business than her food does in their stomachs—and layer the book with a light-hearted complexity that delivers plenty of twists and turns before the thrilling resolution. I’d rate it four and a sip out of five cups of tea—that’s Harrisons & Crosfield’s Tempting Mango Tea, delicate and fruity for a sweetly elegant book.

The young sleuth’s sophomore outing is an altogether earthier affair. The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Noose keeps on many characters from The Sweetness, but Bradley’s less adept at weaving them here, and heavy-handed story-lines clunk against each other. Dogger and Flavia continue to deliver some of the series’ most heartfelt interactions, but many of the other relationships fall flat. Still, Bradley concocts with a charming whimsy, and tea fans might find it worth reading for the story of a samovar called Peter the Great. Personally, I’d give it three out of five cups of tea for faithful Dogger: he’s a simple man, so we’ll make the tea Yorkshire Gold, and we’ll drink it as a real builder’s brew.

I’ll go put the kettle on.

Till next time,

Eleanor

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4 Comments

  1. excellent review eleanor. well written and i’m not much of a book reader but i’m marisa’s uncle and you are very talented LIKE marisa.

    Reply

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