Fresh Blood

Name: Alan Bradley

Title of Book: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

'Flavia de Luce is one of the most original new leading characters that I have read in a long time.'

Flavia de Luce, a precocious almost eleven-year-old is intrigued by the discovery of a dead snipe outside her family’s crumbling mansion. In particular the fact that a rare stamp has been impaled on the bird adds an intriguing dimension that piques her curiosity. For Flavia is no ordinary girl. Held in disdain by her elder sisters, she amuses herself by conducting chemistry experiments using her homemade set, the results of which are used to tantalise her siblings. However Flavia’s nose for hunting out a secret soon takes a sinister turn with the discovery of a man’s body in the garden.

As she turns her scientific skills towards the mystery of the dead snipe and its connection to the dead man, Flavia is forced to consider more pressing matters. There is the mystery of the missing slice of Mrs Mullet’s custard pie, for example, which, in Flavia’s opinion, may unlock the whole case. But first she must try and unravel her absent minded father’s involvement in the murder - and help prove his innocence.

This is an unusual and amusing book by Canadian writer Alan Bradley. The character of Flavia de Luce is one of the most original new leading characters that I have read in a long time. She is precocious, witty and adventurous and if at times she strains the reader’s credulity this in no way detracts from the book. When you read the first sentence of this novel you enter the extraordinary world of Flavia de Luce and do not emerge until the book has finished. It’s like entering the lost world of the Mitford sisters where the girls are allowed to run completely wild.

The plot is well constructed and the central mystery over the case of the missing Victorian stamps is kept light-hearted enough to interest non-philatelists. The relationship between Flavia and the police investigating the case is extremely well written and is very definitely tongue-in-cheek.

Flavia, I am sure will be making a reappearance in the near future. This is a great new book to look out for and should be enjoyed by all crime readers.

Reviewed by: S.W.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) How would you classify your writing, and do you consciously try to write to a certain style or genre?
I’ve always enjoyed books that tell me, in a gripping way, and clearly, a great deal about some topic I know absolutely nothing about. Whether I’m writing fiction, non-fiction, or autobiography I try to make it a plum-pudding for readers who like that sort of thing.
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
I have an abiding affection for the Golden Age British crime novel. To me, there’s nothing more enjoyable than a village green, an ancient church, curious characters, old customs, and heaps of skulduggery (a word that has no less than twelve synonyms in Turkish, by the way). Some of the greatest classic crime novels (such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors) are part of a series. Although there have certainly been great stand-alones, the series allows the author room to develop the setting, the texture, and the way in which the characters change over time. You need time and space to create a world.
3) Where did the inspiration for the character of Flavia de Luce come from?
I was at work on an entirely different detective novel when Flavia just appeared on the page. I had no idea who she was, where she came from, or what she was doing in the story.

My detective had just driven up to a decaying old country house where he discovered a girl sitting on a folding camp-stool, scribbling in a notebook. He asked her what she was doing, and she told him, “Writing down number plates.”
“I don’t expect you get very many in such an out-of-the-way place,” he teased her.
“Well,” I’ve got yours, haven’t I?” she replied – then went on to rattle off the doctor’s, the greengrocer’s and the undertaker’s.

It took me quite a while to realize that Flavia needed to be given her own book to tell her own story. Perhaps one day I’ll get back to the original novel, which would intersect the Flavia series.
4) Did you know much about philately before writing the book?
I collected stamps as a boy. I can remember being able to buy at the drug store, for about 15 cents, a large bottle of carbon tetrachloride, into which I dipped stamps to reveal their watermarks. You could buy the same amount of ether for the same price to fuel model aeroplane engines. I shudder to think what we used to breathe, but it was an invaluable education for a budding crime novelist. The thing that suggested the philatelic details in “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” was finding a copy of Patrick Hamilton’s “British Stamps” in a church rummage sale. (Hamilton was famous for having written “Rope” and “Gaslight”). The book kept me up all night poring over the minutiae of the Penny Black and its successors: the cracks in the printing plates, and the near-paranoid fear of forgery or re-use of the stamps. When Rowland Hill was told that there was one readily available fluid that would wipe cancellation marks clean away, he was so fearful that he refused to put its name in writing. I did some of the research for the book in the Royal Mail Archive in London, where the details of Colonel de Luce’s obsession emerged slowly from the shadows.
5) Where did you discover the quotation from 'The Art of Cookery' that gives the book its title.
I came across it under the definition of the word “crinkle” in The Modern Eclectic Dictionary of the English Language, a 6 volume set published in 1896 which I also acquired at a book sale. It’s a treasured part of my library; a browser’s paradise. A lot of its entries would probably be suppressed nowadays.
6) Do you have any more books planned featuring Flavia de Luce and if so, will we hear more about Flavia's tragic mother?
To date, I’ve outlined six books in the Flavia series, and yes, there will indeed be startling – perhaps even sensational - revelations about Harriet.
7) Do you see any trends in Crime and Thriller novels for 2009 and beyond?
Since novels are an escape, they often tend to be at the opposite pole from everyday life. With the horrendous amount of violence in which we are drowning daily, it seems to me that there’s a growing longing for more gentle times. Quite a few of the forthcoming mystery fiction titles seem to be set in the ‘20’s, ‘30’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s - although I wasn’t aware of this when I wrote “Sweetness”. I’d like to think that Crime and Thrillers will get back to focusing more on clever ideas and less on ways of mutilating the human body.
8) Who would be your dream cast of movie actors for an adaptation of your story?
Jeremy Irons as Colonel de Luce, Michael Gambon as Mr. Twining, and Ian McKellen as Dogger. It couldn’t possibly get any better than that. For Flavia, I think it would have to be someone as yet undiscovered: fresh, bright, eleven, and capable of absolutely anything.
9) Without giving away the plot, which book - yours or by another author - included your favourite plot twist of all time?
At the moment, I quite like the plot twist at the end of “The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag”, the second Flavia de Luce novel, which I’ve just finished writing. For sheer brilliance of invention? Dorothy L. Sayers again: "Have His Carcase".
10) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
Although some wouldn’t count it a crime novel, it is: Tunes of Glory, starring Alec Guinness and John Mills: an exquisite study of character and motivation by James Kennaway. You can watch it again and again and there’s always a new layer. Perfume, too, was exquisite.
11) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
I’ve read quite a lot of crime fiction over the years, and the authors whose books have remained in my mind are Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin. Since meeting them in London at the Daggers, I’ve been catching up on Margaret Murphy, Meg Gardiner, and Anne Cleeves, as well as our own wonderful Canadian detective novelist, Louise Penny. And I love what Laurie R. King has done with her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels. To me, they’re the next best thing to having received an original Strand Magazine for Christmas. All of these authors have one thing in common: the ability cast a spell; to create an utterly believable world in which we become totally enmeshed, and can’t break free until the last page is turned.
12) What is your favourite read crime of all time?
I was afraid you’d ask that! The Nine Tailors, followed closely by the other major Lord Peter Wimsey novels: Murder Must Advertise, Busman’s Honeymoon. Conan Doyle is right up there, too. I think we overlook how great a novelist he really was. To this day, there’s never been anyone who could do local weather like Sir Arthur, although Agatha Christie once came close.