Author: Janine Beacham
First Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers in March 2017
Review by Miriam Atkinson
A novel for teens and young readers, Black Cats and Butlers is the first book in Janine Beacham’s mystery series Rose Raventhorpe Investigates. The novel is a new take on the Victorian-style murder mystery with a sprinkle of magic and the supernatural.
The novel centres on Rose Raventhorpe, the daughter of a Victorian Lord and Lady, living in the town of Yorke. When the Raventhorpes’ own butler is killed Rose is determined to unmask his killer. Her investigations lead to more questions as Rose must discover who is killing the butlers of Yorke and why the cat statues that watch over the city are disappearing.
Told from the point of view of Rose, as a reader it really felt as those I was being placed in her shoes. It was enjoyable to try and solve the murder mystery along with Rose as she discovers more pieces of the puzzle and investigates clues that turn out to be red herrings. Here I must give credit author Janine Beacham for creating such a clever, twisting plot. I did not guess who the culprit was until their identity was revealed in the climatic confrontation with Rose at the novel’s end.
One of the things Black Cats and Butlers does well is its portrayal of strong female characters. Rose in particular is rebellious in her independence. She never backs down from finding the truth or helping her friends even though she may be afraid or placed in danger herself. A memorable highlight was when Rose overcame her fear to stand up to a group of body snatchers and threaten them with a sword. (Yeah, if you were expecting this story to be a quaint Downton Abbey style piece where the biggest drama is a maid in the drawing room then think again).
In addition the fictional Silvercrest Hall, where the butlers are trained to be guardians of Yorke, would seem to readers to be the classic setting for a patriarchy environment. When Rose arrives we instead learn that the Hall is lead by Miss Regemont, a clear authoritative yet caring figure whom all the butlers respect. Helping Rose on her quest is the Hall’s only female student, Bronson, who is loyal, headstrong, and always ready to duel someone who says she should be a housekeeper rather than a butler.
That being said as the novel is set in Victorian England it does feature some of the stereotypes associated with that era in regards to gender. Set in contrast to Rose, her mother appears indifferent towards anything but her own life and leaves her only child alone for much of the story while she is busy getting her portrait painted. Due to Rose’s status as a Lady’s daughter several characters often feel it is their duty to shield her from parts of society an upper class girl ought not to see. For example a policeman becomes increasing angry when Rose tries to converse with a homeless beggar who may hold the key to her investigation. The butlers she befriends attempt to shield Rose from more dangerous tasks but as a reader it was enjoyable to see Rose defy everyone and continue doing what she thought was right.
Black Cats and Butlers holds the unusual position of being both a fantasy novel (due to the occasional inclusion of magic and feline guardians) and a historical novel because of the story’s realistic depiction of Victorian society. Even descriptions of the streets and outfits add to the realism of the story’s setting. Although who are we to say that there was not actually a secret society of butlers guarding Victorian homes and towns…
*This review was originally published in the online magazine Cuckoo Review in March 2017*