Richard Sala's Cat Burglar Black is a charming and stylish escapade replete with homages to the Nancy Drew series, The Secret Garden, and even, in my opinion, the set-piece capers in the Tintin adventures. Teenaged K. is sent to Bellsong Academy after being raised by a cruel matron in an orphanage where she learned dubious skills like how to be a pickpocket. Once at Bellsong, K. soon learns that perhaps stifling orphanages have nothing on private prep schools for sheer eccentricity. Sala takes great delight in giving readers a host of strange and quirky characters, including the headmistress (who seems both sympathetic to K. and oddly hostile) and the somewhat nuts Dr. Kuvac. Soon K. is using her burglar skills to uncover the mystery at the heart of Bellsong Academy. Who are The Obtainers? What do Barbary Pirates have to do with it? Who is behind the talking statue?
I must admit to having a soft spot for mysteries set in schools--the principal appeal of the first three Harry Potter novels for me--and Sala's taken the best part of such childhood memories as Bugs Bunny or Abbott & Costello creeping through haunted mansions and wedded it to fond-remembered scenes involving the Thompson Twins (not, dear Misguided Ones, the pop band) and even, dare I say it, Scooby Doo.
Sala's rich colors and detailed but never cluttered compositions serve the story well, and his teenagers are neither too cloying nor too bratty. The mystery is complex and at times devilish. When you've finished, you remember with fondness nights as a child curled up with a book and a hot cocoa on the couch. The book might be aimed at a younger age group, but adults should get a nostalgic smile out of it.
One revelation before I leave you to your normal Friday perambulations: Growing up, I started out on the Hardy Boys--we had inherited the whole series from someone--but when I ran out of those I bit the bullet and started in on the Nancy Drews also in the box. I must confess I found them equally engrossing.