Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (copy)

Not only is it a great mystery, it makes a great cross-curricular activity book, too! I am talking about debut novel The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. The mystery involves a strange man found dead in the garden amongst the cucumbers of Buckshaw Estate outside London. Activities involve core curriculum classes such as English, Art, Natural Sciences, Mathematics, Music, History and Theatre.

Set in the 1950s, main character, Flavia de Luce, has a passion for chemistry mixed with a fascination for poisons. Precocious Flavia is the first to discover the body while strolling in the garden in the wee morning hours. She actually trips and lands face-to-face with the red-headed rake she saw arguing with her father the night before. In that instance, he shudders, takes his last breath, and exhales the word, “Vale.”

She tells no one of this encounter, especially, not the inspector. Her plan is to solve the mystery before her father is implicated in the murder. To do this requires she take swift trips on her bicycle, Gladys, back and forth from Buckshaw to the village of Bishop’s Lacey. Her BSA Keep Fit has never been as utilized as she pedals to the inn, Thirteen Drakes, or the town library. I picture a young version of Margaret Hamilton in the Wizard of Oz as she pedals in the tornado.

What makes this book different from other mysteries is smart Flavia. The girl is into everything and as we read her thoughts we cannot help but wonder what she is talking about or alluding to. She forces the reader to find the origins of metaphors such as “fingers of friendship,” scan through a biography of Dirk Bogarde, or test one of her many lab experiments. She forces one to think.

Ideas for classroom usage are endless. As Flavia wheels Gladys down the cobblestone streets of Bishop’s Lacey, I picture a geography class mapping her route. I can hear a psychology class interrupting in a muffled giggle as they read the “So utterly Pavlovian” passage. I can see a chemistry class discovering the true color of “a shade more sulphuric than cupric” I can even envision a car tech class pouring over the differences between Rolls-Royce and Austin-Healey engines.

I absolutely love a book that leads to more, too. Many titles and character names are swatted around like shuttlecocks. If anything, this book leads you to the next in the series, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag.