I have always loved crime fiction. My cousin introduced my sister and me to Agatha Christie before any of us were 10 - we would listen to casettes of the BBC radio adaptions on long journeys - and I have never looked back. Over the years I have devoured enormous amounts of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ruth Rendell, PD James, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, as well as scores of less prolific or well-known writers. It's not surprising to me that, despite the overwhelmingly high proportion of male to female published crime writers, particularly well-known library-stock kind of writers, my list of favourites skews heavily female. For me, crime fiction (and particularly detective fiction) is comfort reading, and I am most comfortable with women authors, which possibly has something to do with the fact that one is less likely to be constantly bombarded with low-level sexism in books written by women. At the very least, one can expect there to be more than the one or two female characters which populate a lot of crime fiction with dreary regularity: the good-hearted prostitute who witnessed the crime, the long-suffering wife of the detective, the female police officer who is young, beautiful and brilliant and might possibly end up with the protagonist. There's nothing wrong with stock characters, and female authors are hardly innocent of their use, but as a rule I feel far safer with female authors such as Val McDermid, whose lingerie-clad dead bodies are as likely to be male as they are to be female.
So although I will pick up pretty much anything and give it a go, I often feel a certain amount of trepidation when reading a male crime writer for the first time. On the other hand, I particularly love discovering a new crime writer, no matter what their gender, especially when there's a good number of volumes in their back catalogue.
That can't truly be said of Alan Bradley, author of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. To be fair, it was his first novel and it was published in 2009, so the fact that there are three more in the series is quite impressive. But it's hardly a glut which will keep me occupied for long, so I'm going to ration them out carefully and cross my fingers for more - and that should give you an idea of how much I enjoyed the book.
Bradley's detective is Flavia Sabina de Luce, an eleven-year-old girl who rattles around an enormous country house with her distant father, two superior older sisters and some charming domestic staff. She's a fantastic protagonist - quirky and precocious and rude and silly and clever. Being rather lonely at home she has an imaginative fantasy life and an unusual hobby: chemistry. She has inherited a laboratory and spends a lot of her time reading up on her subject and conducting experiments. This unusual knowledge and skill-set comes in useful in her detection. Flavia pits her wits against adults, buildings, machines and chemical compounds; she is fiercely protective of her family; when she is frustrated she addresses herself by name; she has a beloved bicycle called Gladys.
Although Flavia does have the ubiquitous older sister-who-likes-make-up-and-boys-and-is-basically-a-terrible-person, the novel is peopled with female characters who are diverse enough that this doesn't make me want to throw the book at the wall. There's the other sister, the cook, two librarians and a maid, off the top of my head. Although this makes them sound like minor domestic drudges, even those that are have a character of their own, and each has a meaningful, individual relationship with Flavia. The male characters are equally diverse and interesting. It's actually a pretty unusual book in that a huge number of characters are reasonably well-developed, male and female alike. And that's just one reason to love the novel.
It's rather old-fashioned in its plot and style, harking back to the Golden Age of detective fiction that I personally adore*. If you like Agatha Christie, there's a good chance you'll like this. If you like AA Milne's The Red House Mystery, you'll definitely like this. If you want to read about an effervescent, whip-smart girl detective, I couldn't recommend anything better. Although I normally don't worry about spoiling things, I'm not going to put any details of the plot here. I think you should read the book. The only thing I will say is that it is a crime mystery about philately. If that doesn't tempt you, you're probably irredeemable ...
*In detective fiction terms, Golden Age refers specifically to the period of crime fiction writing which hit its peak in the interwar years. The supposed "innocence" which characterises Golden Age fiction mysteriously vanishes around 1945.