“Dr Bartholomew Cuttle wasn’t the kind of man who disappeared.”
From its opening line this book reels you in to the mysterious and seemingly impossible disappearance from a locked vault, of the Director of Science at the Natural History Museum.
Darkus knows that his Dad would not abandon him, and together with his Uncle Max, and an unusually friendly rhinoceros beetle named Baxter, sets out to uncover the whereabouts of his father. It becomes clear, when they go to inspect the vault, that uncle Max knows more about his brother, and the sponsor of The Cutter Coleoptera Collection than he has divulged to Darkus. What was the Fabre Project that Barty had worked on 15 years earlier? Why is Max startled and concerned that Baxter responds to Darkus as if he understands him? Is there significance in the oversized, green, woolly jumper that Darkus chooses to wear.
The author gifts her readers the most wonderful characterisation, from Uncle Max’s habit of wearing his pith helmet whenever he goes out to imperious, ghastly Lucretia Cutter, a genetically-modified version of Cruella de Vil! Her first appearance in the narrative is fabulous:
“Jet-black hair, gold lips and the her body came lurching into view, leaning on the sticks. She wore a white laboratory coat over a long, black dress, and every jarring movement of her body screamed out how angry she was.”
However, this is trumped later on by the description of Lucretia’s breakfast habits, which will delight children and will live long in my memory! The cast of villains include the hilariously warring cousins, Pickford and Humphrey, whose collective greed and idiocy provide great comic entertainment. Dankish and Craven, Lucretia’s henchmen are deliciously repugnant. Meanwhile, lonely Darkus who has abandoned friendships since the death of his mother five years previously learns the value of friendship and teamwork from small, brainy, inventive Bertolt and tall, fierce Virginia and an army of beetles.
In addition to its entertainment value this book is a treasure trove of natural science, particularly concerning insects, likely to set inquisitive youngsters on a quest to look up the scientific vocabulary, as a start to which there is a helpful glossary at back. One of my favourite quotes refers to Darkus learning the meaning of Coleoptera, but in fact epitomises the joy of discovery when reading all great books:
“The new word felt like a discovered secret, and Darkus was keen to use it as soon as possible.”
I should also mention that the book is enhanced by the black and white illustrations throughout by Julia Sarda, as well as her cover art…and if you are lucky, beetle designs on the page edges!
I hope that this joyous adventure inspires a whole new generation of ecologists and entomologists to scuttle to the library to investigate the amazing insect kingdom. Highly recommended for boys and girls of 7+.
If you enjoy this book, look out for the next two books in the series: Beetle Queen and The Battle of the Beetles.