It makes for great fun when a writer can draw from direct experience of an uncommon career to create an uncommon series. Zoos are an alien landscape to me – the logistics involved in housing and maintaining dozens of species of wildly varying requirements are completely beyond me, but Ann Littlewood can write of it with the almost casual authority of someone who’s lived it. Her Portland zookeeper Iris Oakley lives and breathes the life. The story follows her into all areas of the zoo, and it’s fascinating.
She also lives and breathes the life of a single (widowed) mother of a small child, and the complications and joys of that are threaded through the book. This is one of the more realistic depictions of making do without a whole lot of money that I’ve seen, especially in the mystery genre; it seems like too often characters in “cozies” skip merrily along, opportunities or legacies landing in their laps at just the perfect moment; to read about a woman forced to think twice about a major opportunity because (not to spoil too much) preparing for it would be too expensive – that’s rare.
Also rare is the sort of relationship Iris has with her parents. Too often writers fall back on what has become a cliché – adult bickers with parents and avoids them at all costs. There is bickering here – but the reasons are provided, and the relationship is deepened, and is filled with corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an already convincing narrative. Her role as a widowed mother, harried and worried and head-over-heels in love with her son while still realizing he’s not a dream to handle, is utterly authentic. All of the relationships are mature (or becoming so) and believable – and, in the case of that with her best friend, a little heart-breaking.
Happily, the mystery aspect of the book is plausible as well. Although Iris literally stumbles over the body in question, she does not seem to be the sort of character who will do so on a regular basis like some of the corpse-detectors mystery series tend to feature. Iris has solid, valid reasons to be where she is, and the murder she discovers is part of a larger state of affairs involving animal trafficking. The story is well told without putting Iris in unreasonable situations, and is laced through with fascinating details about the animals under her care without beating the reader over the head with a stick labeled “Zoo Mystery!” I loved it, and look forward to more.
- How not to… video your child at the zoo (Video) (thedailyedge.thejournal.ie)