HE SPITTETH UPON YOU!
Author: Betty Webb
I’m accustomed to cozy mysteries having cutesy, punny titles that riff on the main character’s line of work. So it is with great admiration that I gaze upon the title of Betty Webb’s most recent Gunn Zoo Mystery, entitled THE LLAMA OF DEATH. Congratulations, Ms. Webb, on managing a nod to convention with a wink in the execution. All of the Gunn Zoo Mysteries are similarly titled – *NAME OF ANIMAL* OF DEATH. How can you not love that? I love it so much that I’m going to use all caps every time I write it.
THE LLAMA OF DEATH is the third book in the series (the first two having an anteater and a koala as the animal harbingers of DEATH) that follows zookeeper Theodora (Teddy) Bentley through her daily rituals at the Gunn Zoo as well as her amateur sleuthing in her free time. In this installment, Teddy has been instructed by zoo owner and all around hardass octogenarian Aster Edwina to take Alejandro the llama to the local Renaissance Faire. Believe me, I know what you’re thinking –THE LLAMA OF DEATH goes to the Ren Faire. Too unbelievably awesome. I love this author.
Anyway. Though Teddy is disgruntled about being away from the rest of her animals she and Alejandro form a tight bond as he gives rides to his beloved children and she sweats in her ill-fitting ren-wear. When one of the actors is murdered, it just so happens that it looks like Alejandro was somehow involved. Or is it someone else, even closer to Teddy, who will be accused of the crime? The rest of the basic formula falls into place when the acting sheriff is grossly incompetent, “forcing” Teddy to play sleuth and find the killer on her own.
There’s nothing particularly spectacular about the mystery here –it’s pretty standard fare and I figured out the killer long before I would have preferred. Not because of any clues, but because I’ve been around the mystery block a time or twenty. The key to a good cozy isn’t really in the mystery, though, it’s in the characters and the setting. In the case of THE LLAMA OF DEATH, the characters are passable but the setting is fabulous.
First, characters. Teddy is fine – nosy and headstrong and devoted to her family, her job and her (currently out of town) sheriff boyfriend. Her family could not be more annoying. Her mother is a serial monogamist of the gold digging variety, vapid and shallow. Her father is a crook on the lam after embezzling money he didn’t need. Her boss is a nasty old woman with entitlement issues. I can’t stand these people. Some of the other peripherals (other zoo workers, friends, etc.) are better, if not quite likable. The cozy trap of why our heroine puts up with such abuse is out in full force and could have sunk the entire enterprise. The setting saves it.
The series is set in a tiny village on the California coast – so tiny, in fact, that most of the residents live on houseboats in the harbor. They’re called liveaboarders and Teddy is among their ranks. She lives on a tiny boat called the Merilee, where she is comfortable and cozy (of course). Her job at the zoo is filled with tidbits of information about the animals she cares for, their habits, care and the general responsible operation of a zoo. Teddy as a character shines when she’s working and her interactions with Alejandro the llama are really very sweet. The combination of the inside look at zookeeping and some of the animals as well as the novelty of this tiny, floating community that shares showers and laundry facilities keeps the annoying family from wearing out the reader with its heroine-busting insensitivity. It may be that their love for Teddy was established in earlier installments in the series. I certainly hope so.
Overall I quite enjoyed THE LLAMA OF DEATH. I like Teddy, I like the zoo, the animals and the liveaboarder concept. I don’t like her family, because they’re awful, but hopefully they aren’t quite as omnipresent in other installments of the series. I would definitely read another Gunn Zoo Mystery. 3 ½ stars out of 5, recommended for cozy genre fans and animal lovers.
— S. Millinocket