Bradley: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
|Ratings are described on the Book-note ratings page.|
Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. New York : Delacorte Press, 2009. 370 pages.
This is a novel, a mystery story, in fact. The detective / heroine is a precocious eleven-year-old named Flavia de Luce. She lives with her widowed father and her two older sisters, plus a family retainer, in the family house known as Buckshaw, near the village of Bishop's Lacey, someplace in England. It's the summer of 1950. Before too long a body turns up in the cucumber beds, and Flavia investigates, not feeling guilty that a dead body is the most exciting thing to happen that she can remember.
Flavia has a passion for chemistry. Thanks to her late mother, Flavia has her own chemistry lab on the top floor of Buckshaw. Given her passion for chemistry, it's no surprise really that chemical analogies are always near the top of her mind. This is where the scienticity finds its way in.
Why is it, I wondered, that the men who choose the names of our inns and public houses are so desperately unimaginative? The Thirteen Drakes, Mrs. Mullet had once told me, was given its name in the eighteenth century by a landlord who simply counted up twelve other licensed Drakes in nearby villages and added another.
Why not something of practical value, like the thirteen Carbon Atoms, for instance? Something that could be used as a memory aid? There were thirteen carbon atoms in tridecyl, whose hydride was marsh gas. What a jolly useful name for a pub! [p. 102]
Such is the grace of Alan Bradley's writing that we're not at all surprised by this turn of Flavia's thought, nor are we ever really surprised by what should seem unexpected analogies. It's all part of Flavia's charming demeanor. Here she's trying to get some information out of Dogger, the devoted family retainer, serving right now as gardener.
Dogger managed the ghost of a smile.
"I know I'm not putting that in the best way, but—"
"I know what you mean," he said.
"Horace Bonepenny," I blurted out. "Who is Horace Bonepenny?"
At my words, Dogger began to twitch like an experimental frog whose spinal cord has been hooked up to a galvanic battery. He licked his lips and wiped madly at his mouth with a pocket handkerchief. I could see that his eyes were beginning to dim, winking out much as the stars do just before sunrise. At the same time, he was making a great effort to pull himself together, thought with little success [pp. 141—142]
Philately is a theme, and the famous British postage known as the "Penny Black" plays an important role. So here Flavia's dashes through a quick history lesson in British stamps, combined with some mnemonic suggestions from—what else?--chemistry.
Postage stamps, Father had explained, were printed in sheets of two hundred and forty; twenty horizontal rows of twelve, which was easy enough for me to remember since 20 is the atomic number for Calcium and 12 the number for Magnesium—all I had to do was think of CaMg. Each stamp on the sheet carried a unique two-letter identifier beginning with "AA" on the upper left stamp and progressing alphabetically from left to right until "TL" was reached at the right end of the twentieth, or bottom, row. [p. 154]
The book is utterly charming and the narrative compelling, but I laud it here for its scienticity, the way Bradley has integrated an analytical outlook and unselfconscious bursts of science into the amiable and adventurous Flavia's persona. Author and heroine make it all seem a natural part of life, as it should be.
-- Notes by JNS