by Cynthia Chow
& Lorie Lewis Ham
This week we are reviewing Betty Webb’s latest zookeeper mystery Llama of Death. We are also interviewing Betty & you can enter for a chance to win a copy of the book–details at the end of this post. You can find info on Betty’s other series also in this issue in an article on mysteries set in the West.
Llama of Death by Betty Webb
Review by Cythnia Chow
In Llama of Death by Betty Webb, from Poisoned Pen Press, an edict from zookeeper Theodora “Teddy” Bentley’s tyrannical and terrifying boss Aster Edwina Gunn (a woman far more frightening than any lion, tiger, or bear) has Teddy spending four weekends at a Renaissance Faire giving out llama rides all to benefit the San Sebastian County No Kill Animal Shelter. Tasked with guarding Alejandro the Llama, who happens to hate all adults but loves children, Teddy spends her time dodging llama spit, faking sixteenth century dialect, and trying to calm her mother, the much married Caroline Piper Bentley Hufgraff O’Brien Peterson.
When the Reverend Victor Emerson playing Henry VIII declares Caro too old and cosmetically altered to play his wife and instead chooses an equally plastic but much younger Bambi O’Dair, Caro goes on the warpath with declarations of beheadings. This is unfortunate, as a panicked Alejandro awakens Teddy that night and forces her to discover the Reverend’s body. Despite a llama’s surprising lethal ability to defend against coyotes and predators, the pseudo king was not stomped to death so much as he was impaled by an arrow. A series of unfortunate events and a bureaucratic rule of seniority over merit places the incompetent Deputy Elvin Dade as the acting sheriff, guaranteeing that the investigation will be botched. Even more unfortunate is that Teddy’s fiancé, the real Sheriff, is completely incommunicado due to training at Homeland Security. So when Elvin’s first act is to arrest the narcissistic, snobbish, but innocent Caro, Teddy truly has no choice but to butt in and investigate on her own. Especially when Caro is released on bail but immediately sentenced again for attempting to incite a riot against being forced to wear orange jumpsuits that clash with her mani-pedi.
Zookeeper Teddy is truly a delightful character, acerbic in nature but completely devoted to her animal charges. This is not too surprising considering that Teddy’s father fled the country to escape embezzling charges and tigers would be insulted to have their mothering skills compared with Caro’s. Living on a boat in a harbor of Gunn Landing, California, Teddy usually finds serenity in the tiny floating home she shares with her pound rescues, a three-legged terrier and a one-eyed Persian cat.
As Teddy gets herself into trouble and even arrested while trying to do the incompetent Acting Sheriff’s job, she is still ordered by heiress Aster Edwin to perform her zoo and television spot duties, which she tackles more than capably, sharing with readers the delightful details of the sex practices of Galapagos tortoises, the retractable (and impressive) appendages of Argentine ducks, and the remarkable brutality of the honey badger. The practices and policies of zoos are also explored, from the red coded escapee alerts, feeding methods that engage the animals’ instincts, and the entertaining and useful Great Escape media blitz that has Teddy dressed in a lion costume fleeing the staff. Much lighter in tone than the equally well written Lena Jones series, this third Zoo Keeper mystery is a wonderfully funny and witty mystery sure to entertain lovers of animals and mysteries.
Betty Webb Interview:
Lorie: How long have you been writing?
Betty: I’ve been writing professionally for around 30 years, first as an advertising copywriter, then 20 years as a journalist. Halfway through my journalism career, I started writing mysteries.
Lorie: When did your first novel come out?
Betty: My first mystery, Desert Noir, the inaugural Lena Jones novel, came out in 2000, was published by Poisoned Pen Press. Other than Tony Hillerman, no one was writing mysteries set in the desert southwest, so I thought it was time to change that. Basically, the plot of Desert Noir is about the murder of a Scottsdale AZ art gallery owner, but the book is really about the ugly housing tracts and shopping malls that are eating up the beautiful Sonoran desert.
Lorie: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Betty: I wrote my first novel when I was 14–it was titled (ironically enough) Desert Mane, and was about a 14-year-old girl who had stowed away on a ship to Arabia and bought a horse from a Bedouin chieftain. Then she was able to miraculously to stow away both herself and the horse on a ship back to America. Yes, I know, the plot is ridiculous, which was probably why I couldn’t get it published. My first actual published novel came out when I was 30; it was a “mainstream” novel about a suffering artist, and was so terrible I won’t give you the title. Fortunately, it was published under a different name, so you can’t sneak around and find it! Hopefully the Library of Congress loses their copy.
Lorie: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? Tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Betty: After writing several best-selling Lena Jones mysteries (the most well-known was Desert Wives: Polygamy Can Be Murder, which was about a self-styled polygamy “prophet” with a liking for little girls), I decided have some fun and add a lighter series to the mix. I was a volunteer at the Phoenix Zoo at the time, so I set my first Gunn Zoo mystery in a zoo, although I placed the zoo in the Monterey Bay, California area. My new zoo novel is The Llama of Death, where zookeeper Theodora “Teddy” Bentley takes Alejandro the llama to a renaissance faire to give llama rides. Unfortunately, the wedding chapel owner playing the part of King Henry VIII is murdered in the llama’s faire enclosure, and poor Alejandro is at first blamed. It’s up to Teddy to find the real killer.
Lorie: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Betty: My Lena Jones books are always about human rights abuses (Publishers Weekly called them “mysteries with a social conscience”), but the Gunn Zoo books are pure entertainment. However, a lot of people write to me saying they’ve learned a lot about exotic species from my books.
Lorie: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Betty: While I was still a full-time reporter I trained myself to start writing on my books from 4 a.m. until 8 a.m., then got ready for work. Now that I’m retired from the paper, I still get up at 4 a.m. but I don’t stop writing at 8. I just keep chugging away until around noon. Then I do what normal humans do.
Lorie: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Betty: I always completely outline. And around the third chapter, I always stop following my outline. It’s sick, but it works for me.
Lorie: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Betty: Not really. I had a good agent, and she hooked me up with Poisoned Pen Press fairly quickly.
Lorie: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Betty: I received the call that Poisoned Pen Press bought my first book while I was sitting in my cubicle at the newspaper. When I jumped up screaming, the other reporters thought my editor had just caught me misquoting some cranky politician.
Lorie: Most interesting book signing story-in a bookstore or other venue?
Betty: For my first Gunn Zoo book, The Anteater of Death, some readers showed up with toy plush anteaters and gave them to me. I now have the sweetest collection of giant anteaters you’ve ever seen. For the next zoo book, The Koala of Death, I received some plush koalas. This time out, I’m looking forward to llamas.
Lorie: Future writing goals?
Betty: Someday I’d like to try a stand-alone, but so far–with two different series going–I haven’t had time.
Lorie: Writing heroes?
Betty: So many! Sue Grafton, J.A. Jance, Peter Robinson, David Morrell, Dean Koontz… geez, don’t get me started. My list is just too long.
Lorie: What kind of research do you do?
Betty: For the Lena Jones books, I bury myself in the library, plus drive to the various Arizona areas where I’m setting that particular plot. For the Gunn Zoo books, I hang out with zookeepers. For The Llama of Death, I visited the Arizona Llama Rescue Sanctuary and met some wonderful llamas (as well as the couple who rescued them). For my next Gunn Zoo book, The Puffin of Death, I flew to Iceland and visited a large puffin breeding area.
Lorie: What do you read?
Betty: Mysteries, thriller, horror, speculative fiction, and “literary” books. Aw, heck, I guess you could say I read everything.
Lorie: Favorite TV or movies?
Betty: Law & Order, The Walking Dead, L.A. Confidential, and anything noir-ish or with zombies. I just can’t get enough zombies. But when I’m finished writing a book, I watch a few episodes of “Hoarders” to get me in the mood to clean up my messy den.
Lorie: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Betty: Write every single day; the more days you allow to lapse between working on your story, the harder is it to get back to it. Writing is like a muscle–use it or lose it.
Lorie: How do you feel about the growing popularity of e-books?
Betty: They’re fine with me. All my books are available in all the various incarnations–e-books, hard copy, paperback, CDs, etc. The one thing that worries me about e-books, though, is that they’re driving so many independent bookstores out of business, and I think that’s a tragedy.
Lorie: Do you read e-books yourself?
Betty: Only when traveling. I love the feel of a “real” book.
Lorie: Anything you would like to add?
Betty: Yes. Next to writing a novel, being a brain surgeon is a snap. And I know that because I’m acquainted with a brain surgeon who once tried to write a novel, then gave up after 50 pages.
Lorie: what is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Betty: I dress up as a zombie every Halloween and join dozens of other zombies who haunt the Phoenix Zoo.
Betty: For the Lena Jones books, it’s www.bettywebb-mystery.com. For the Gunn Zoo books (and The Llama of Death it’s www.bettywebb-zoomystery.com. For Twitter it’s @BettyWebb. For Facebook it’s Betty Webb/author.
Lorie: How do you compete in an overcrowded market?
Betty: Since I’ve been writing mysteries for more than ten years now, and touring on all of them, I have collected the names, addresses, and e-mail URLs of several thousand readers. I use that as my base, but I’m always on social media, too. And I blog for on my own blog http://bloggingwebb.blogspot.com and guest blog on other writers’ blogs.
To enter to win a copy of Llama of Death, simply email KRL at life@kingsriverlife[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Llama”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen January 12, 2013. U.S. residents only.