Cat Burglar Black
Written and Illustrated by Richard Sala
First Second; $16.99
I occasionally get some grief from my male friends when they find out I like gothic romance. They hear “romance,” their eyes glaze over, and they immediately want to start talking about something else. No amount of castles, ghosts, malevolent barons, girls in white dresses, or hidden passageways are going to change their minds. As far as they’re concerned, I might as well be talking about Confessions of a Beauty Addict or Better than Chocolate.
But I’m so not and it’s a pity that books like The Castle of Otranto, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Northanger Abbey are so easily dismissed. I’m a sucker for any story about a young girl forced to move into a creepy old house with a terrifying owner and at least one locked room she’s not supposed to go into. What’s not awesome about that?
The only thing I don’t like about some of these books is that the heroine ultimately has to be rescued by a guy. Product-of-the-times and all. In Cat Burglar Black, Richard Sala avoids that by making his protagonist an extraordinary thief who can take care of herself, but other than that it’s classic gothic romance.
The girl’s name is K and she’s just been accepted into what she’s told is an exclusive girls’ school called Bellsong Academy. It’s a spooky old mansion in the middle of the woods, but K’s had a hard childhood and is appreciative when her aunt, the Dean at Bellsong, invites her to come study there. K’s parents died when she was young, so she spent most of her life in an orphanage run by a Fagin-like crone who forced her charges to steal for her. K was one of the most talented until the orphanage caught fire and the wicked Mother Claude was burned alive, freeing K and the other kids, but also making them find new places to stay.
The only other people at Bellsong are three other students (Dory, Morrow, and Zel) who are also accomplished young burglars, the creepy teaching staff (led by the sinister Mrs. Turtledove), and K’s aunt who is severely ill and laid up in bed with bandages all over her face and body. Something is obviously very wrong at the school, and K becomes determined to figure out what it is, how her aunt is involved – if that is her aunt – and what it all has to do with the father she never knew.
Sala said somewhere recently – I wish I could remember where exactly – that his storytelling focus is much more on mood than characterization. He doesn’t think too much about motivations; his characters do what the story needs them to do. I think that’s true, but I also think it’s the perfect approach for gothic romance. Gothic characters are largely interchangeable from story to story. The heroine always acts like a good and innocent person because she is a good and innocent person. The villains are mean because they’re greedy villains. There’s not much more to it than that, but the familiar formula is a large part of the attraction.
The biggest pleasure of gothic stories though is the atmosphere. Whether it’s a brooding old manor on the moor or a ruined convent in the mountains of Europe, gothic romance surrounds the reader with a dark, spooky world full of secrets and lies. The heroine is the one candle fighting the gloom until the hero is able to arrive and turn on the lights for good. Sala does visually what Brontë and Poe did with words. Bellsong and its environs are hauntingly beautiful with shadowy, twisted trees, ancient cottages and bridges, and sinuously grasping foliage. There are gardens filled with ominous statuary, and rooms so packed with wonderful details that you just know there has to be a hidden door or a trap in there somewhere.
Like I said before though, K doesn’t have to wait for her hero to come in and turn on the light in this wonderfully murky world. She’s her own rescuer. She’s a modest, but completely confident cat burglar and if the book has a flaw it’s that she never really seems to be in danger. The excitement of the story comes from a different place though: seeing if she’ll untangle the mysteries of Bellsong Academy and rescue any other innocents there. If there are any.
Four out of five cute cat burglars.