Another pick from the Book Riot 2019 Read Harder Challenge! This time, the task was to read a cozy mystery.
Mysteries have never been my thing. When I was young, my mom attempted to get me hooked on Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Bobbsey Twins. Each of these series fell flat and I was bored to tears (my apologies to all the many Nancy Drew fans out there! These books just weren’t the books for me, and I tried. Multiple times in every series, even!). I don’t remember reading any mysteries as a teenager, either, because by then, I already knew that this was a genre that didn’t much captivate me. But I’m always interested in shaking things up in a literary sense, and so I grabbed this copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley while visiting a thrift shop a few months ago. I remember when this was published and it seemed like everyone I knew was reading it, so I was looking forward to giving it a go myself.
Flavia de Luce is 11 years old and knows way more about chemistry than you do. She even has her own lab tucked away in her family’s Georgian home, a lab where she learns, experiments, and dreams up ways to torture her two older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. After adding the oils she extracted from poison ivy leaves to Ophelia’s lipstick, Flavia happens upon several events that will change everything for her. First, a curious bird turns up dead on their doorstep, a postage stamp impaled on its beak; the next morning, she stumbles upon a body in the garden, a man who breathes his chemical-scented last in her face. Far from being terrified, the precocious Flavia is deeply intrigued. Using her well-honed powers of deduction and despite the efforts of law enforcement and other pesky adults, she sets forth determined to figure out the real story. Who was this dead man? How did he die? Did his death have anything to do with that argument she overheard Father having last night? The stakes rise when Father is arrested and jailed, and Flavia will have to use everything she’s learned about chemistry and life in order to save him…and herself.
I enjoyed this. It wasn’t so much the mystery aspect of it that drew me in, but instead Flavia’s precocity, her no-nonsense way of looking at the world, and her deep love of science. I barely managed to pass high school chemistry (I accept some of the blame for this, but the class average was 33; the teacher wasn’t a great one. He was also a creeper who used to sit on his porch and stare at my mom through bincoulars when she was sunbathing when I was young, but that’s another story), so I admired her strive for knowledge in her chosen subject. There was something that reminded me immediately of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; despite their differences, Flavia and Christopher operate by the rules of logic, rather than feelings, which give both stories a similar air. Not to mention that both books are considered to be written for adults, yet they’re narrated by children. I’ve come across instances where that’s annoying, but for these two books, the authors made it work well.
I also liked getting a glimpse of village life in postwar Britain in this. Dogger, the family’s gardener (among other jobs), has a terrible case of PTSD and both Flavia and her father are so protective of him, which was absolutely lovely to read. The descriptions of the clothing and decor, Father’s hatred of the telephone, the library that’s only open Thursday through Saturday (THE HORROR!!!), Flavia’s mention of listening to the radio…it all added up to such a fascinating picture of a time I’ve only really ever read about in one other book (one of my favorites, Back Home by Michelle Magorian). And Flavia’s explanation of bits of chemistry here and there definitely interested me. I’ve always wanted to understand chemistry, but when it comes down to it, I can never wrap my mind around the different kinds of bonds, and how many electrons are shared here or there, and if you can’t grasp the basic building blocks, there’s nowhere else to go from there. Still, reading her commentary on various chemical makeups and her descriptions of experiments delighted me. I’ll take any chemistry I can understand!
Will I read more cozy mysteries? Hmm. Maybe. Some of the other choices on Book Riot’s list, such as Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien and Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles by A.L. Herbert intrigued me; I was planning on reading one of those two before I happened across my copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I generally don’t care for books with a lot of grisly murder scenes or action that makes me feel anxious, but maybe this is a genre I can keep in my pocket for a rainy day, when nothing on my TBR interests me or I’m looking for something different to pull me out of a reading slump.
Do you enjoy cozy mysteries? Any recommendations that are along the lines of this book?