by Cynthia Chow
& Betty Webb
I think one of the funnest things to do in the summer is take the kids to the zoo, so what better time to review a mystery that features a zookeeper! We have a review of The Otter of Death by Betty Webb, and a fun zoo related guest post by Betty. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of The Otter of Death along with a link to purchase the book from Amazon, and an indie bookstore where a portion of the sale goes to help support KRL.
The Otter of Death: A Gunn Zoo Mystery by Betty Webb
Review by Cynthia Chow
It’s not unusual for zookeeper Theodora Bentley to see the Pacific Ocean otters wielding an assortment of tools to crack open the shellfish they adore. Even seeing her favorite otter Maureen hauling around a cellphone doesn’t raise Theo’s eyebrows, as the mischievous furry swimmers have a habit of stealing and hoarding their favorite shell-cracking devices. What does alarm Theo is that after sneakily retrieving the phone, she discovers that it recorded the last living moments of its owner. Stuart Booth, one of those responsible for recording the number of otters for the Otter Conservancy marine life rescue organization, managed to photograph his own bloody murder.
A Professor at Betancourt College, Dr. Stuart Booth had a reputation for favoring his female students, which may have led to the married man’s death. Theo has the unenviable task of being torn between masters: one being Mother, the much married social climber Caroline Piper Bentley Mallory Huffgraf Petersen Grissom who wants Theo to stay safe and move home, and the other her boss, the uber-demanding heiress Aster Edwina Gunn who insists that Theo DO something and make all the problems go away. Perhaps tracking down Stuart’s lurid history of philandering and sexism would be easier if she weren’t so distracted by her own recent engagement to San Sebastian County Sheriff Joseph Rejas, who also would prefer that Theo move off of her beloved houseboat, stop getting involved in his investigations, and not once again be attacked and targeted by a murderer. It’s no wonder that Theo finds her sanity within the Gunn Zoo, where her charges are more reliable than the Peyton Place lifestyle of the socially-challenged zookeepers.
This novel could never come at a more momentous time, as years of sexual discrimination and harassment by a patriarchy comes into play. The ramifications for its victims are seen decades later, with the emotional and physical toll it takes empathically revealed. Despite the weighty topic, humor is delightfully threaded throughout as Theo maneuvers between the two domineering women in her life. Fans of this animal-loving series will delight in seeing appearances by their favorite zoo occupants: Lucy the giant anteater, Wanchu the Koala, and Magnus the polar bear cub. It’s easy to sympathize with poor Theo as she’s pulled in so many directions, but she always manages to find the resilience to protect her animal wards and even appear on a favorite talk show with animals that tend to go rogue.
It’s dealing with her own personal life that has Theo instinctively wanting to duck for cover. Few will be able to resist this ebullient, witty, and eminently likable heroine, one who bears the responsibility for not just her exasperating loved ones but for her dependent zoo residents. That Theo is the roommate of a three-legged terrier and a one-eyed Persian further testifies to her need to root for the underdog, as well as her innate need to be a protector. This continues to be a rewarding read for mystery lovers, especially those to love to learn and appreciate the unique animal kingdom.
That Day at the Zoo
By Betty Webb
When I was five, my father, now deceased, took me to the zoo. It seemed to me a wondrous place, with everything from armadillos to zebras. The zebra especially amazed me – was it black with white stripes, or white with black stripes? — while the rambunctious behavior of the squirrel monkeys made me laugh.
But most of all, I enjoyed the time spent with my father enjoying our shared amazements, our shared laughter. I’d always experienced adults as big people who had nothing in common with small me (I was small for my age). And adults spoke a different language than I did, were interested in different things, and were never, ever afraid.
At the zoo, though, my father and I seemed to be looking at the world through the same eyes, experiencing the same emotions. In our shared ignorance of the exotic animals around us, we were on same level.
My father had grown up on a farm, but his own parents – he explained this to me while we watched a lioness nurse her cubs – only owned cows, a couple of mules, some chickens, and a goat. Well, they had a dog, too, and there was a family of cats living in the barn. But they had nothing like the animals we were seeing now. He was as amazed as I to see that while these exotic zoo animals behaved in some ways like the domestic kind, like the lioness nursing her cubs, in other ways they were not similar at all. Those cats in the barn wouldn’t eat us; the lioness might.
“Does that scare you?” my father asked me.
“No,” I lied. “Animals have to eat, too.”
After walking by ourselves for a while, we joined a tour group comprised of everyone from senior citizens to toddlers. The tour leader, a zoo keeper, furnished a commentary about each animal. At one exhibit, he took his keys out of his pocked and jingled them in front of the fence. A strange little creature came out from behind some rocks. It looked like a cross between a house cat and a squirrel, but had the fluffy striped tail of a raccoon. “That’s a miner’s cat,” the tour leader explained. “His keeper always has a bunch of keys hanging from his belt, so he thinks it’s lunchtime. He equates this jingle,” he jingled the keys again, “with food.”
When no food was forthcoming, the miner’s cat waddled off, but not before we learned how the animal — it’s real name was “ring-tailed cat” — got its nickname. Miners used to prospect for gold in the deserts of the American southwest, where the animals lived. At some point along the way, the ring-tails began hanging out in the mining camps. Some miners actually domesticated them because the ring-tails ate mice, rats, and insects, making the desert a less hostile place for prospecting. A little furry companionship never hurt, either.
Further along, we came to the reptile section of the zoo, and stopped in front of the rattlesnake enclosure. With a grin, the guide asked, “Do you know the last sentence usually spoken before someone gets bitten by a rattlesnake?” No one answered, not even my father, who I’d thought, before our trip to the zoo, knew everything.
Chuckling, the guide said, “It’s ‘Hold my beer and watch this.’”
Everyone laughed, including my father.
My father died when I was fifteen. Because he and my mother had divorced when I was three, I seldom saw him and therefore never really learned to understand him and the choices he made. But that day we saw the same things and experienced the same emotions. For once, despite the difference in ages, we were on the same wave length.
On the way out of the zoo we came across a tiny fennec fox, her ears the biggest part of her little body. My father stopped to study her.
“You know what?” he finally said. “That fox reminds me of you.”
“Because of my ears?” I’d always been self-conscious about my ears.
“Because that fox is smart, she’s small, and she’s not afraid of anything.”
My father, who was given to hyperbole, probably overstated my virtues that day, but it made no difference. I believed him, and in the end, that turned out to be all that mattered.
To enter to win a copy of The Otter of Death, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “otter,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen July 14, 2018. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address (so if you win we can get the book sent right out to you), and if via comment please include your email address. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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