Since I grew up in a place filled with rambling old houses that had decaying and mysterious corners, and this place (Mackinac Island) is also filled with the various kinds of enchanted, woodsy paths and clearings that are found in many an English detective novel, these books have never felt a bit foreign to me. Classic British detective stories, set in rambling old houses apart from the rest of the world, feel like reading about home. As Flavia, the heroine in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, thinks as she looks out into her family’s garden early one morning: “Sparkling dew lay upon everything, and I should not have been at all surprised if a unicorn had stepped from behind a rose bush and laid its head in my lap.” Of course into this heaven a dead body is usually discovered, but somehow the enchanted spell is still difficult to break.
Patricia Wentworth, writing at a time when old country houses were authentically filled with the shabby or disreputable gentry (the 1940’s and 50’s) doesn’t have the self consciousness of Alan Bradley, who is taking up an old form and imposing his own will on it. Wentworth’s and Bradley’s books are fair comparisons, because in this particular outing Wentworth’s Miss Silver (retired governess, now a private detective) has gone out to the aptly named Deepe House to see if there is anything to Anna Ball’s disappearance. Anna had been an unsatisfactory governess for the Craddock family, a post Miss Silver now (and much more capably) takes up. Deepe House—now re-christened “Harmony”—though none of the villagers will call it that, is surrounded with its own sort of artist’s colony. There’s a weaver; a man who embroiders and wears peculiar trousers; a woman who goes (scandalously) only by the name “Miranda” and nothing else; and a few other spinster types. The whole is underwritten by the Craddocks—the money actually belongs to the overworked wife, who is a slave to her mending basket, her ill behaved children, her decaying house and her tyrant of a husband, Peveril Craddock, who makes pronouncements and then vanishes to his impenetrable study to undertake a “great work”. Here he must not be disturbed, which is handy for him and more or less leaves Mrs. Craddock to fend for herself.
Flavia, age 11, is also the member of an odd and dysfunctional family. There are her older sisters, Ophelia (“Feely”) and Daphne; her eccentric father, who keeps to his study and his stamps, and who is still grieving the loss of his wife, Harriet, many years ago. There’s Dogger, who works in the garden (but who has held every other household post, he just likes the garden best) and Mrs. Mullet, the cook, who produces inedible custard pies. Flavia’s dearest companions are not her sisters but her chemistry lab—she’s a budding chemist with a passion for poisons—and her bike, which she has christened Gladys. She may be the most preternaturally aware 11 year old who ever existed. She has her limits but they appear to be very few.
The story opens when Flavia and Dogger discover a dead man in the garden—he is dying just as Flavia reaches him, and he utters only the word “vale”. In fairly short order Flavia’s father is arrested for the murder, and she feels it’s up to her to set things straight.
There are differences between the two books, however. There’s a certain sincerity and downright emotional engagement to the Miss Silver stories (serving through 32 installments) that grab me, as a reader, right away. As I was reading Bradley’s highly original book I was charmed by his language and his unusual characters, but the emotional engagement, for me, didn’t kick in until half way through the book. Miss Silver is the voice of sanity and reason, often the oasis for people who are severely stressed and always dealing with some kind of sudden death. Her ability to carry on a sensible dinner table conversation while (or “whilst” as Wentworth is fond of saying) the other guests are under the stresses of various uncomfortable family situations is one that I envy.
Miss Flavia de Luce, while a sensible 11 year old, is still only 11, and she gets some things wrong. This, of course, is to be expected, but I felt the book needed a stronger emotional tentpole to hang this very clever and well done story upon. This isn’t a strict historical novel though it’s set in 1950, and the time frame doesn’t seem to have an actual purpose. It’s interesting to hear the family talk about the king’s stamp collection (and stamps are in fact a major plot point) but this story could have as easily been set in the present, though it probably would have lost some of its charm in the transposition.
Those caveats aside, Bradley has a wonderful voice and turn of phrase, and he proves himself to be an extremely ingenious plotter. Flavia gets herself into some dangerous situations which seem more forgivable as she’s only 11—she doesn’t know any better. While she figures out much of what has happened, she’s still surprised at the just as capable (and far more direct) methods of the police at the denouement. Like many another celebrated child heroine, Flavia operates more or less on her own, and as she is in fact motherless, there’s no one to question it when she disappears on her bike for hours at a time. The pure delight which this author takes in his creation is obvious, and it makes me more than willing to revisit Flavia again, should she make another appearance. In the meantime, you can enjoy this nice addition to the traditional British mystery genre, a field that can never be full enough. Or if you crave a little knitting and those special shoes with the beaded toes (not to mention the hair net), you can turn back to Miss Silver. Both are extremely satisfactory.