Alan Bradley understands the pros and cons of being the brightest kid on the block. Bradley is the author of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - the hottest mystery novel to emerge in recent years. The book introduces Flavia de Luce, a precocious chemistry-obsessed 11-year-old girl, who leads the hunt for a killer in a post-World War II English village.
“I started reading at a very young age,” said the 70-year-old native of Kelowna, British Columbia, who grew up in Cobourg in southern Ontario. “I was fortunate enough to be one of those kids who suffered through childhood with illnesses and I was confined to bed at home for a long time. My sisters taught me to read to help me pass the time. I was reading at kindergarten age and that caused some problems when I went back to school because I was far more advanced in my reading than the other children.
“I am interested in idealism, especially at that young age. Children have limitless idealism. It’s a bit like a lost Camelot. I remember losing that idealism in high school around the age of 14 and it was devastating. That idealism got me thrown out of a classroom. It was grade nine and I was in English class. The teacher asked us how many books we had read over the summer, starting with one book and then two to 10 books. By the end, I was the only child who hadn’t raised their hand. I was asked how many books I had read and I said: ‘Ninety.’
“I had read one book a day more or less over the summer. I would go the library every week and come back with seven books. The teacher was stricken by what I had said, thought I was lying, and pointed to the door. I went to the principal’s office and high school remained that way for the rest of my time there.”
Flavia de Luce, the 11-year-old sleuth in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, is Bradley’s idealist on the page as she investigates a stamp-themed mystery after a body is discovered in the cucumber patch. “She is an idealist because she thinks chemistry is a beacon and everything makes sense through chemistry,” he said. “Flavia understands chemistry better than she understands life in her own household. That idealism has great interest for me. Flavia is completely blind to family relationships. Her experience of life is zero. She sees things but doesn’t understand them.”
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was in demand before it was even finished after winning Britain’s 2007 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award. The award judges manuscripts featuring the first 3,000 words of a novel penned by an unpublished author of fiction. Bradley had written two non-fiction books (a memoir called The Shoebox Bible and a non-fiction book called Ms Holmes of Baker Street that argues Sherlock was female) and learnt about the awards after his wife heard an item on CBC Radio.
When he returned to Canada following his victory, he discovered his agent had sold the book into three countries (UK, Canada and the US) and his mystery writing career had to step up several gears.
Bradley has been writing non-stop since the award. His second Flavia novel, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, is complete and he is working on the third. There will be six books in all. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - set in a village featuring the classic English settings of the manor house, the church and the pub - was written even though Bradley had never visited Britain. “I had always dreamed of going to Britain but I always woke up before my plane landed,” he said.
Bradley began in radio and television before becoming Director of Television Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon where he remained for 25 years. He quit in 1994 to become a full-time writer. He was a founding member of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild and also The Casebook of Saskatoon - a society devoted to studying Sherlock Holmes.
“It was in the mid-1970s,” said Bradley. “I founded The Casebook of Saskatoon with a professor from the University of Saskatchewan. It might have got up to 12, 15 members and only stopped a couple of years ago.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a reader of mysteries. Even as a child, my grandmother had copies of the Strand magazine and they had the early Sherlock Holmes stories – I had no idea I was reading from the first editions of Sherlock Holmes. I’ve had a life-long love of mysteries and have early memories of reading Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon.
“I started to write The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie in spring of 2006. Flavia walked into another novel I was writing as an incidental character and she hijacked the book. I didn’t finish that book but Flavia stuck with me.”
Today, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is being translated into multiple languages with rights being sold to an ever-increasing number of countries. The Guardian called the book “delightfully entertaining” and the future looks bright for Flavia and her chemistry set.
Want to learn more about the fearless Flavia? Visit the Flavia de Luce fan club at http://flaviafanclub.ning.com.