The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley is one of the most engaging mystery novels I have read in a long time.
The heroine is 11-year-old Flavia deLuce who lives on her family's estate in England. This is a huge, old, English manor house, which has been in the family for generations. Flavia is steeped in her family's history just by living in that house. The year is 1950. Her mother passed away when she was very young, therefore, Flavia has no memories of her. She lives with her two teenage sisters, an old gardener who suffers with spells since The War, and her father, the Colonel, a heartbroken man who, is a philatelist, and would rather spend time with his stamps than with his girls. They also have a cook who spends much of the day preparing food for the family.
What is most interesting about Flavia is her love of chemistry, and especially poisons. She is rather remarkable for an 11-year-old girl in that she found a chemistry book in the family library, started to read it, and fell in love with the formulas. She is thrilled by how chemistry can explain so much about life. One of her ancestors was a chemist, and had a fully stocked laboratory in the house. Flavia spends a lot of time replicating the experiments she reads about, and concocting a few of her own, such as distilling the poison out of poison ivy. She then melted down her sister's lipstick, and added the essential oil from the poison ivy into the cosmetic. She then observed her sister, making notes in her lab notebook, and waited for a reaction to the poison.
The mystery occured when Flavia decided to go outside around 4am and tripped over a man in the cucumber patch. She knelt beside the man to look at his face and witnessed his last breath. The man says, "Vale" and puffs a last gasp that has an odor which Flavia identifies as a familiar chemical compound, though she cannot quite remember which one. Most people, especially 11-year-old children, would be frightened by this event. Not Flavia; instead, she considers this to be the most fascinating and exciting thing that has ever happened to her.
The book is so well written that I found myself hoping for a sequel. Imagine my pleasure when I looked through the last pages of the book to find that the author is already working on Flavia's next mystery, I am a fan and eagerly await the next book in the series!