Wednesday, November 16, 2011

TBR Challenge - The Child Detective

I had a mad crush on Encyclopedia Brown when I was little. I read as many of the Nancy Drew books as I could find. And I adored the adolescent detective in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher, who seemed like he might have some form of autism.  So, to satisfy this month's "non-romance" TBR Challenge, I went back to a mystery with another child sleuth. I like their common sense and their ability to ferret out the obvious details that adults overlook. I like the way their minds work.

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.

Mind you, Flavia isn't most people's idea of an idiot. She's a keen amateur chemist with a specialty in poisons. (She avenges herself against her older sister by contaminating Ophelia's lipstick with urushiol, the extract of poison ivy. Never mind that poison ivy doesn't naturally occur in England. It does grow in Canada, where Alan Bradley's from.) But there were times when it seemed implausible that a girl of her age could know some things, like the names of obscure volcanoes, but then not know what a "rhetorical question" is, for example.

Similarly, she knows what 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!


  1. I agree with you completely. Flavia didn't seem like a little kid to me, and the mystery was just boring. Furthermore, I kept asking myself why FLAVIA was investigating the murder. In most of the books with children detective that you mention, they investigate things that are relatively inconsequential (compared to murder), but which kids WOULD care about and could deal with, emotionally. They don't go strait to investigating the killing of someone they knew.

  2. Or someone they didn't know. I didn't get the sense that the father was particularly at risk when she starts to be the annoying sleuth. Frankly I didn't get the sense he was ever much at risk, or if he was, why I should care.

    And yet, it's a WILD BESTSELLER. Go figure.

  3. Magdalen--
    Thank you for articulating why I didn't care for the book. I read the whole thing and then shrugged. Didn't bother with the sequels either.
    I just didn't find any of it amusing; I didn't understand the hoop-la.
    Oh well-

    [I was never a Nancy Drew fan nor an Agatha Christie fan. By 6th grade I was reading Perry Mason and The Saint to get my mystery fix--and went on from there into more hard-boiled mysteries.]



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