But Flavia Sabina de Luce, the 11-year-old protagonist in Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie just annoyed the hell out of me. She's bizarrely knowledgeable until she isn't, intrepid but rather cruel, clever when it suits the plot and dim at other times.
Or maybe I just didn't care who killed the red-haired man in the de Luce's cucumber patch.
Mind you, I can see why the book is an "International Bestseller." (According to Wiki, Bradley sold the rights in three countries based on a synopsis and the first chapter. Maybe that's why I didn't like it so much--sour grapes.) Set in 1950, it's got that made-for-PBS feel of an English country village back when you cycled everywhere. Flavia de Luce is "plucky." I can imagine she appeals to readers who would have enjoyed Joan Hickson's Miss Marple so much more if she'd only been pre-adolescent and thus inherently an idiot.
Leonardo da Vinci's Vetruvian Man looks like, but doesn't know what body part her sister is talking about with the advice, "If you're ever accosted by a man, kick him in the Casanovas and run like blue blazes." Maybe I was the unnatural 11-year-old, but I think at that age I could have deduced what general area of a man's body was meant by the "Casanovas."
It's easy to see the antecedents for Bradley's inspiration. Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle for its wacky family dynamic, Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm for its cast of wacky characters made wackier by virtue of shadowy past tragedies, and all of the Miss Marple mysteries. As with Agatha Christie, the implication in Sweetness is that the rural police are good-natured but dim, useful only for a) arresting the wrong person and then b) arresting the right person after our intrepid amateur sleuth has sussed out his or her identity.
The problem for me is that the wackier the characters and their dialogue, the less I believe in the mystery and its attendant danger to our girl detective. For a taste of the wacky, here's a truly implausible bit of a long, long monologue by Laurence "Jacko" de Luce, Flavia's father, describing his childhood at a public school:
Mr. Twining was more kindly than adept [as a conjuror]; not a very polished performer, I must admit, but he carried off his tricks with such ebullience, such goodhearted enthusiasm, that it would have been churlish of us to withhold our noisy schoolboy applause."I know this is supposed to be the translation of childhood into an adult man's vernacular, but Mr. de Luce is so bland and distant up to this point that having him spout sesquipedalian words just makes him even less interesting. As he's locked up on suspicion of killing the fellow in the cucumber patch when he makes that speech, it's particularly odd.
Sweetness is a wildly popular book--I know this because it took forever for my Wish List copy to arrive via Paperback Swap. Just as well I didn't like it; now I don't have to worry about how long it will take to get any of the sequels.
Now that's one way to reduce a TBR pile!