The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley
Recommended Ages: 13+
Eleven-year-old Flavia lives in her family's old baronial estate with her two older sisters, her absent-minded widower father, and a shell-shocked family retainer named Dogger. Besides them, her daily circle also includes a plump pious neighborhood woman who comes in to cook the meals. Her passion is chemistry, especially the concoction of poisons. But when a dying stranger blows his last poison-scented breath into her face one morning in the cucumber patch, Flavia switches tracks and becomes a sleuth. She has to prove, for one thing, that her father is innocent of the crime for which the police have arrested him.
It all ties together with the death of a boys' schoolmaster thirty years ago and the theft of a rare postage stamp. What it all has to do with Father, and who really done it, is going to be hard for Flavia to prove when she doesn't have the police's access to the physical evidence. All she has is old newspapers, chats with people who have no idea what they witnessed, and a strange discovery among the dead man's luggage. As she pushes closer to the truth, she finds herself in terrible danger, from the treacherous roof-tiles of a bell tower where a murder took place to the pit at the bottom of a shed where a killer holds her in his power.
Flavia's vulnerability made my heart go out to her. Her strength and spirit made me cheer for her. Her touch of evil genius made me a little afraid of her. And her keen mind made her an extraordinary crime-solver, especially for her age. The mystery is very straightforward, set in a novel whose simple structure never tries the reader's patience or wastes the reader's time. And yet it takes time to be funny, informative, touching, and as its well-shaped climax emerges, more and more intense. I have high expectations for the whole series.