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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Zoo mysteries. Why now?

By Ann Littlewood, guest blogger, author of Night Kill, published by Poisoned Pen Press

Betty Webb’s The Anteater of Death; Death Roll by Marilyn Victor and Michael Allan Mallory; and my own Night Kill—what’s up with three zoo mysteries in two years?

Jacqueline Fiedler set Tiger’s Palette in a zoo ten years ago, but few mysteries have used this setting since then. Animals in mysteries are common enough—Donna Andrews writes a series featuring exotic animals, and multitudes of mysteries have domestic feline and canine characters. But lately we have this spate of zoo mysteries, all different, all chock full of wild animals.

I can’t tell you why now because I’ve always wondered why not. It’s puzzled me that zoos haven’t been standard fare in the mystery world. Just think of all the ways you can kill someone off! I have the advantage of working twelve years as a zookeeper, but, really, anyone can see the potential. If being chomped by lions, tigers, or crocodiles doesn’t do it for you, there’s always poisoning from snake or spider bite, trampling via zebra stampede, evisceration by sloth bear or cassowary, and the many creative ways elephants have found to vent their frustrations on uppity upright primates. If all that gore is too dismaying, how about veterinary injections gone wrong, zoonoses (diseases from animals), or garden-variety work accidents?

As for characters, any zoo will have keepers, management (already with the conflict!), volunteers, grounds keepers, maintenance staff, a board or a city council or both. Take note that people work with animals because they love them and, sometimes, in addition, because they are…how to put this…not necessarily gifted at interaction with their own species. Hang out at a zoo and it won’t be hard to develop characters with an abundance of passions, opinions, and convictions who are a bit odd around the edges. Don’t overlook the unpredictable and unfathomable General Public, and that reliable source of stress, animal rights activists.

Zoos have all this to offer the mystery writer, but wait—there’s more! Humor? Mix visitors—adults or children—and animals, and humor happens. (Ask me about the raccoon eggs.) Animals reveal personality and character to those who take the time to watch, and they can be way more ornery and quirky than any bunch of office workers. As just one tiny example, not to go into X-rated detail, but we had this domestic bunny hopping around loose on the grounds, see, and this jungle fowl rooster, and, they had this, um, relationship… Or would you believe a weasel with a (live) pet mouse? Probably not, but I have witnesses.

What about the potential to develop story lines around serious issues? Conservation and animal care both offer boatloads, but there’s also… No, I’m stopping there. Better to save a few great ideas for my next zoo mystery.

Ann Littlewood was a zookeeper at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon, for 12 years, working with a wide variety of mammals and birds. After a stint in corporate America, she is delighted to be back in the zoo world, at least mentally, writing the Iris Oakley mystery series. To learn more about Ann, visit her web site at www.annlittlewood.com

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