Cat Burglar Black
by Richard Sala (First Second Press, 2009)

I love stories that are eerie, twisted, mysterious, offbeat and filled with quirky humor. Which is why reading Richard Sala's terrific graphic novel, Cat Burglar Black, put me in story heaven.

After her parents died under strange circumstances, K. Westree was raised in an orphanage where the children were taught to be thieves. A long-lost aunt surfaces after many years, arranging for her to be sent to Bellsong, an all-girl's boarding school.

K. sees this as her chance to finally lead a normal life and renounces her past as a thief. This proves difficult, as the school has three other girls who are also thieves, who are under the control of a sinister organization called The Obtainers.

The Obtainers are in search of three paintings once owned by the former headmistress of the school who, ashamed that her family's fortune was built on piracy and stolen goods, hid the magnificent treasure somewhere on the rambling old estate that houses the school grounds. The only clues to the treasure were hidden in the paintings, currently owned by the residents of a mysterious village called Moorlock's Gate. The Obtainers force the four girls to steal the paintings in order to solve the puzzle and find the treasure.

The atmosphere-rich story is set in a creepy old mansion filled with a menacing staff, drafty old rooms, hidden passages, statues that move and speak, and a mysterious invalid swathed head-to-toe in bandages. On top of that, characters begin to mysteriously disappear as the heists are committed.

How delicious is that?

This fast-paced, tightly plotted cat's tale grabs you from the moment you start reading until the open-ending finish line. Salas' bright watercolors are easy on the eyes and sell the story quite well, keeping perfect pace with the vibe of the narrative. The characterization is masterful, displaying K.'s weaknesses and strengths with an ease that should allow anyone to identify with her. The black humor is highly reminiscent of the Lemony Snicket novels, for which Sala did illustrations.

There are enough twists and turns and unanswered questions to justify a sequel to this charming and sophisticated tale, which ended up on a number of 2010's "best of" lists. Except for the very young, this is an appealing book that should reach many readers.

review by
Mary Harvey

23 February 2013

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