The 22nd book I read, or rather reread, for the book challenge was The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie: A Flavia de Luce Mystery by Alan Bradley.
Flavia de Luce is an eleven year-old British girl, a chemist in-training, who lives at Buckshaw, the family mansion, in the small town of Bishop’s Lacey in England with her father, Colonel William “Jacko” de Luce, Ophelia (Feeley), and Daphne (Daffy), as well as Dogger, the gardner and jack-of-all trades. She finds herself who more mysteries to solve than she can shake a stick at, as the Girl Guides would say, before Flavia was unceremoniously drummed out of them for manufacturing an antidote to a poison for a domesticity badge.
After manufacturing an elixir of poison ivy and molding it into a lipstick for her sister Feeley, they discover a dead jack snipe with a penny black stamp impaled on it’s bill on the kitchen doorstep. The colonel faints dead away. Then, Flavia and Dogger overhear her father arguing with a man in his study in the middle of the night. Later that night, or early the next morning, Flavia comes across the man dying in the cucumber patch outside the kitchen door. He breathes his last into her face, uttering the word, “Vale!” They call in the police, of course, and the Inspector and two police sargeants from Hinley arrive and relegate Flavia to arranging for tea after she tells them she found the man dead. She races off to Bishop’s Lacey and the Thirteen Drakes Inn to check the stranger’s room for clues as to his identity.
There she meets Ned and Mary, the inn keeper’s daughter. She searches the man’s room. She finds the remains of a pie and a bulge under one of the travel stickers on his valise. She slits the sticker and finds two orange stamps, which she takes and puts in her cardigan pocket. Just then another guest pulls up in a cab and Flavia and her trusty bicycle Gladys take off back to Buckshaw.
She is making observations about the state of Feeley’s mouth (no fever blisters yet). She still doesn’t know the man’s name yet, but the police know that he came from Norway. Eventually she learns his name was Horace Bonepenny and that he was a classmate of her father’s at Greyminster, a school for boys a town over from Bishop’s Lacey. The subject he and this man had been discussing was the death of a teacher 30 years before. Flavia goes to the Bishop’s Lacey library to look up information on Mr. Twining’s death and finds that he supposedly committed suicide at Greyminster. He was the uncle of the substitute librarian, Ms Mountjoy, who is convinced that he was murdered by Flavia’s father, Horace Bonepenny, and Bob Stanley, three boy who were at the school at the time. Flavia wants to know more but no one will tell her. She returns to Buckshaw and meet Frank Pemberton, the new guest from the Three Drakes, who is writing a book on English country homes and is interested in Buckshaw. She spends some time with him in the rain at the Folly and then returns to the house.
The next day, her father is arrested for the murder of Horace Bonepenny. Flavia is upset and rides into Hinley to try to convince Inspector Hewitt that she killed Bonepenny, not her father. Then she tries to get the Inspector to let her see her father. He relents and lets her visit her father. Her father, usually reticent, tells the story of the death of Mr. Twining and of the stamps. Mr. Twining had convinced Dr. Kissing, the head master, to show the boys of the stamp club his Ulster Avenger stamp, one of two, the other being held by the King. Horace Bonepenny was a master of magic and Bob Stanley his assistant, and somehow the stamp disappeared but seemed to have been destroyed. Mr. Twining felt is was his fault and felt terribly guilty. One day soon after, they look up to the tower and saw Mr. Twining standing there like an angel with his cap and gown and then plummet to the earth, dead. The stamp was never found, thought to have been destroyed and Mr. Twining thought to have committed suicide.
Flavia finds out that she has both Ulster Avenger stamps, Dr. Kissing’s and the King’s. She finds out from another Bishop’s Lacey resident that Dr. Kissing is still alive in a nursing home and goes to visit him at the nursing home with the stamp. She gives him the stamp and he burns it. She is horrified but it is his stamp. She returns to Bishop’s Lacey and figures out that Frank Pemberton is really Bob Stanley. She believes Horace Bonepenny and Stanley were trying to blackmail her father, that they had stolen the King’s stamp at a philatelist’s convention in London the month previous and Bonepenny and Stanley were trying to get Colonel de Luce to buy the stamps from them for a large sum of money. They hadn’t counted on the fact that de Luce has little money now and that he certainly wouldn’t take the King’s stamp. Stanley had killed Bonepenny in the cucumber when he crossed him and wouldn’t give him the stamps. Flavia knew with what but she didn’t know how.
She was in the High Street and then in the bank of the river to visit Mr. Twining’s grave to think where she runs into Frank Pemberton, or Bob Stanley, who takes kidnaps her and holds her prisoner in the library’s Pit Shed. He returns to Buckshaw to search for the Ulster Avengers which, she has told him, are hidden behind a clock in her father’s bedroom, when, in fact, the remaining stamp is in her handkerchief which is stuff in her mouth as a gag. The rest of the book is the suspense of Flavia attempting to free herself and her ultimate rescue, and then the return of the King’s stamp.
This is a tongue-in-cheek, rollicking good read. Flavia is laugh-out-loud funny as she observes the changes in her sister Feeley’s lips with use of the poisoned lipstick and her commentary on their housekeeper Mrs. Mullet’s cooking. I love this book, which won several awards for mystery writing and is the first in a series of Flavia de Luce mysteries. It is truly a marvelous couple of afternoon’s diversion.