The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

by Alan Bradley

Random House, 2009

373 pages

I think it was in one of my college lit classes that I first heard the term “antihero.” Before that point, I had encountered the character type but had never had a name for it.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, an antihero is essentially a primary or secondary protagonist who is unsympathetic or deeply flawed. And, like other character types (the savior, the fallen woman, etc.), antiheroes come in various shapes and sizes.

In some cases, the antihero isn’t a hero at all (at least, not in the commonly-used sense of the word)–more a villain who just  happens to be the story’s main character. At other times, the antihero is a figure of ambivalence, one who inspires neither repugnance nor admiration.

And then there are the inspiring antiheros–those whose flaws are very deep, but tremendously redeemed. Or those whose disagreeableness only highlights how much they’ve overcome. Flavia de Luce, 11-year-old narrator and main character of Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, is that kind of antihero. And that’s why I decided to write about her and her book.

Flavia, the youngest daughter of a 1950s English country squire, is also a passionate chemist with a particular interest in poisons. When one of her father’s estranged school friends (who, like Flavia’s dad, is into philately) turns up dying in the manor’s cucumber patch, with Flavia the only witness to his final moments, the girl catches the detective bug. And when the police arrest her father for the murder, she finds that her passion and her father’s dovetail to unlock a fascinating and dangerous mystery.

Now, quite apart from the inspiration factor, I really enjoyed this book. I’ve been a diehard Anglophile since early childhood, and I’m particularly fascinated by books that, like Sweetness, deal with the vagaries of England’s faded but persistent class system. The family’s centuries-old manor house is virtually a character in the novel, and the complicated relationships between the de Luces and “the village,” along with Bradley’s dash at questions of upward mobility and intra-class hierarchies, would warm any lit professor’s heart.

I also love well-crafted mysteries. As a kid, I read them widely until I settled on Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s detectives as my favorites (I know, again with the Brit lit). Sweetness has been likened to Christie, and deservedly so, both in terms of style and background themes. Bradley’s intricate plotting, colorful characters, and esoteric subject give the book just the right combination of craft, quirkiness, and depth.

The mystery is also where much of the inspiration comes in. Flavia is a geek girl’s Miss Marple; like the older sleuth, she’s sly, savvy, and misleadingly unintimidating and innocent–sometimes to the point of being downright manipulative (one of the reasons she qualifies as an antihero). And obstacles and fears that would repulse other people only add fuel to her detective fire.

Unlike Miss Marple, however, Flavia is baldly unconventional. Her craze for chemistry, her contempt for traditionally feminine pursuits like fashion and cookery, and her deliberate flouting of class barriers mark her out from the crowd. Significantly, they also help her solve the mystery. Her boundary-breaking is rewarded, not punished.

Finally, there’s that whole antihero thing. I’ve mentioned that Flavia can be manipulative. She’s also surly, defiant, self-centered, and distinctly unempathic. And she’s often indifferent or even vindictive toward her own family (in the book’s primary subplot, she deliberately contaminates her oldest sister’s lipstick with poison ivy).

Yet, as the book progresses, we see her begin to examine those tendencies, even modulate them somewhat. Without losing her edginess or strength, she becomes a bit more able to think outside herself. She pushes her detective work to the extreme of endangering her own life in order to save her father. And she begins to show genuine attachment to some of the more worthy characters of the book. Book’s end finds her “doing the right thing,” willingly (though I won’t describe what that thing is, since it would be a major spoiler).

Don’t get me wrong–Flavia is still very off-putting in her way. But real people often are. And that’s the point: Flavia feels real, not like a paperboard villain or half-crafted creation. And, like real people often do, she has to push beyond her own failings, possibly even find a way to redeem them, to make her world right again.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first of a projected six Flavia de Luce mysteries. The first five have been published; book six is due out January 2014. Thanks to my friend S. for pointing me to Flavia!

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