Josephine Drollery: Revolutionary-Era Ghost Detective

The Drollery Letters Number One: The Case of the Devil’s Interval, by Emily H. Butler, (EgmontUSA), recommended for grades 3-7, 176 pages, release date 8 September, 2015

I don’t know if it’s always been the case, but I feel as if I’ve seen a lot of books lately published as “volume one” in a series, which leaves me curious. Was the novel so good that the publisher immediately contracted for more? Was the author expressing a sort of writer’s optimism? Whatever the reason, I’ve just finished  a book for grade school-aged (more or less) readers that I’m glad to see is presented as volume one in a series: Emily H. Butler’s The Case of the Devil’s Interval, the first volume in The Drollery Letters.

The central character here is Josephine Drollery and the novel is set in 1784, in the newly independent U.S.—but if you’re expecting something American Girl-ish, you’re in for a surprise. The book is a sort of historical, humor, paranormal, slightly steam punk mash-up.  Josephine is a brand-new ghost trying to solve her own murder with the help of a fraudulent spiritualist, who styles himself as “The Great Montesquieu,” a pair of orphaned African-American cousins, who trade odd jobs in a tavern for the privilege of sleeping in the stables, and a dead-but-still-teaching Harvard professor in the Study of Every Known Scientific Principle.

Josephine is livid because the great Montesquieu has begun publishing the cases they’ve worked on—without giving her any credit! So she’s penning her version of the story and sending it Montequieu’s publisher, with whom she is equally miffed: “I do not wish to mince words, you great nitwit. But if stupidity were contagious, you would be the plague. If it were candy, you’d be a sugar-dusted nut ball.”

While Josephine is tracking her killer (and she’s not the only victim), she’s facing additional challenges. The first of these is learning to be a ghost. Even the lightest material objects, for example, are impossibly heavy for a ghost to lift: “A candle was a luxury in those days, one that my friends couldn’t afford and that I couldn’t carry.” The second is evading a pair of Harvard paranormal researchers who are the Revolutionary-era equivalent of ghost busters. (The equipment they use is where the steam punk comes in.)

Dead or alive, Josephine is a remarkable girl, full of imagination and gumption. She refers to the nursery where she sleeps as the crow’s nest, noting “(I suppose people of limited imagination would refer to it as the nursery.)” Whether or not you’re in grades 3-7, you’ll enjoy spending time in her company and, like me, will be looking forward to meeting up with her again.

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