"It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily through my nose fighting desperately to remain calm. I tried counting to ten on every intake of breath, and to eight as I released each one slowly into the darkness. Luckily for me, they had pulled the gag so tightly into my open mouth that my nostrils were left unobstructed, and I was able to draw in one slow lungful after another of the stale, musty air."
Did those lines grab you the way they did me? They're the opening paragraph of "The Sweetness of the Bottom of the Pie" by Alan Bradley. I was hooked. Although I seldom read mysteries, I knew I was going to like this book.
The heroine, 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, is destined to become a classic fictional character. Motherless Flavia lives with her father and two older sisters, Feely (Opelia) and Daffy (Daphne) at Buckshaw, an English manor house.
I have loved books set in English manor houses all my life ("Last night I dreamed I was at Manderly again") and this one, set in 1950, is no exception. Here's Flavia's description of her home: "As I climbed over the last style and Buckshaw came into view across the field, it almost took my breath away. It was from this angle and at this time of day that I loved it most. As I approached from the west, the mellow old stone glowed like saffron in the late afternoon sun, well settled into the landscape like a complacent mother hen squatting on her eggs, with the Union Jack stretching itself contentedly overhead."
A lonely child, Flavia has a cantankerous relationship with Feely and Daffy, and an almost-non-existent relationship with her father. For comfort, she turns to her love of chemistry and an elaborate chem lab, both inherited from an uncle. In her sanctum sanctorum, she creates her favorite chemical compounds, which just happen to be poisons. Fortunately, she doesn't use them on any one.
A mysterious stranger's late-night visit to Flavia's father, followed by her discovery of a soon-to-be corpse in the garden, begins a whodunit in which she must clear her father of a murder charge and find the real villain.
In addition to possessing a keen intellect, Flavia is naturally curious, determined and plucky. Of the dead man in the garden, Flavia says "I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that has ever happened in my life."
With Gladys, her trusty bicycle, Flavia sets out to scour town and countryside looking for clues. They include stolen rare stamps, a 30-year-old murder and characters from her father's past, and of course, poison as a murder weapon.
"Sweetness" is the well-deserving winner of the (British) Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger Award. It has also won other awards, including a best young adult book. I feel that is a misnomer, for in no way is "Sweetness" a book for children even if the heroine is a child.
In many ways, "Sweetness" reminds me of that wonderful book, "I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith, for its evocation of a similar time and place.
It wasn't until I reached the "About the Author" page that I learned that Bradley will be featuring Flavia de Luce in a series of books. "The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag" will be out on March 9. I can't wait! At last I too have a murder mystery series to follow and an ongoing character to watch as she grows and develops as a sleuth.