The Butterfly Picnic by Joan Aiken

Although Joan Aiken is best known for her children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, she also wrote lots of books for adults. I read one of them, Castle Barebane, last year and enjoyed it so much I knew I would have to read more of them. Unlike Castle Barebane, which was a Gothic historical novel set in Scotland, The Butterfly Picnic, first published in 1972, is contemporary and has much more in common with the suspense novels of Mary Stewart. The characters even reference Stewart’s My Brother Michael once or twice!

The Butterfly Picnic is narrated by Georgia Marsh, a Greek-Chinese-Russian-French orphan with six older brothers, all of them scientists. Georgia has been summoned to the beautiful Greek island of Dendros by her cousin Sweden, another scientist. With no idea why Sweden wants to meet her so desperately, she makes her way to her cousin’s boat which has just sailed into the harbour – and is just in time to witness Sweden’s murder. Unfortunately, Georgia doesn’t see the killer’s face and when she reports the incident to the local police they show very little interest in catching him. In fact, they seem to think Georgia has imagined the whole thing and insist on sending her off on the next plane home. Luckily, the plane is promptly hijacked by Palestinian liberators disguised as priests and Georgia persuades them to return her to the island so she can continue to investigate Sweden’s death.

At this point I was beginning to wonder what on earth I was reading. The plot seemed too ridiculous for words and quickly became even more bizarre…

The plane lands Georgia on the other side of the island where she finds herself accepting a teaching job at a very unusual school inside a castle belonging to a millionaire described as ‘the wickedest man on the island’. However, it seems that someone is determined to prevent Georgia from discovering the truth, and she suffers a series of mishaps including being locked inside a kiln and falling through a trapdoor into an oubliette. While lost in a maze of underground tunnels, Georgia asks herself what Esther Summerson in Dickens’ Bleak House would do: Esther would have bustled up and down the passages doing a great many household errands and embroidering half a dozen yards of ornamental work and jingling her bunch of keys.

The Butterfly Picnic is fun to read and quite a page-turner, but definitely shouldn’t be taken too seriously! As I mentioned above, there are some similarities with Mary Stewart’s novels (the Greek setting, the brave and capable young heroine), while the scientist storyline also reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Destination Unknown, but this is clearly intended to be a parody of those genres of books. As long as you go into it expecting a book that’s more of a comedy rather than a conventional thriller or suspense novel, you’ll probably find it entertaining.

Although I can’t really say that I loved this book as the plot was just a bit too silly, I will continue to try more of Joan Aiken’s novels. The next one I have on my TBR is The Embroidered Sunset and I’m curious to see what it’s like. One final note – be aware that the US title of this book is A Cluster Of Separate Sparks. I wouldn’t want anyone to buy the same book twice!

Book #3 read for R.I.P. XVII

15 thoughts on “The Butterfly Picnic by Joan Aiken

  1. Lory says:

    I enjoy Joan Aiken but she does go into bizarro mode sometime. Of her adult books, I remember particularly enjoying If I Were You, a Regency identity-switching story. I don’t think I’ve read either Castle Barebane or The Butterfly Picnic, sounds like the first is worth seeking out but I’ll skip this one.

    • Helen says:

      If I Were You sounds good – I’ll have to look for that one. Yes, of the two Aiken novels I’ve read so far I much preferred Castle Barebane!

  2. Lark says:

    Good to know this is the same books as A Cluster of Separate Sparks! I was going to say I’d never heard of The Butterfly Picnic, but that must be why. And silly plots can still be fun.

  3. CLM (@ConMartin) says:

    I’ve never even heard of this one and I own a lot of her books!

    It is annoying when publishers change the title and having been in a lot of those meetings, I can say it is usually for a stupid reason.

    • Helen says:

      Having read the book, I’m not really sure what ‘a cluster of separate sparks’ refers to. I think the UK title makes more sense as there are at least butterflies in the story! It’s not a great book, but worth reading if you come across it.

    • Helen says:

      I always thought of her as a children’s author until quite recently, but it seems she wrote a lot of adult thrillers as well. I have another one on the TBR to try, but I’m hoping it won’t be as bizarre as this one!

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