Monday, January 21, 2019

The Koala of Death (Gunn Zoo Mystery #2) by Betty Webb

Paperback, 250 pgs, Pub Aug 1st 2010 by Poisoned Pen Press (first published May 27th 2010), ISBN13: 9781590587584, Series: Gunn Zoo Mystery #2

This is the perfect book to pick up when you find yourself unable to read with concentration for any reason. Webb has such an easy, involving style, personable characters, and smart insights about animal habits that it is hard not to be curious where she is going with the central mystery. In the end she relied on more than a few stereotypes to describe TV anchors, rich technologists, and wealthy beauty queens, but the path was enjoyable and what we want from mystery series: character development and movement.

Red-haired and freckled, the aptly nicknamed Teddy is an unlikely combination of enthusiastic zookeeper and reluctant heiress. Her beauty queen mother is intent upon marrying her off to a Silicon Valley man but Teddy herself tends towards the half-European half-Latin sheriff who cares for two kids from his first marriage. A new zookeeper is found dead under suspicious circumstances, and though her former boyfriend is taken into custody, the killings do not stop.

What I liked best about this was the sunny California feel of living just inland from the seaside quay where Teddy keeps moored her live-aboard boat. The low-key zoo is placed in scented environs near a eucalyptus forest and features photogenic blue-tongued anteaters and cuddly koalas. Webb’s writing is humorous and assured even while unraveling a complicated mystery involving lots of peripheral characters and possible murderers.

I have a niece who will be zoo-keeping at San Diego Zoo this coming spring, a zoo mentioned several times in the course of this mystery, so I admit to some focused attention on the animals mentioned and animal care. While the fiction may not all be accurate, it is a refreshing, inventive angle from which to approach a mystery, and gives the author a chance to indulge some serious research.

Webb was once a journalist for a Phoenix-based newspaper and began writing fiction at the turn of the 21st century with a Desert Series featuring Scottsdale-based investigator, Lena Jones. Webb’s work on that series is said to have been based on real cases, and always addressed some pressing societal issue like sex trafficking, despoliation of the environment, welfare fraud, native rights. It is said there is a strong frontier feel to the series.

Frankly, Webb seems a natural when it comes to fiction. She understands how to tell a story and chooses her topics well. She gives readers plenty of credit for following her into the intricacies of a mystery or knowing where to put the emphasis on an important topic. Webb also teaches creative writing at Phoenix College. My guess is the class would be worthwhile, and a blast.

I read this for my new Mystery bookclub, the topic of which is "Death in a Hot Climate."

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Phi Beta Murder (Rex Gravves #3) by C.S. Challinor

Paperback, 208 pgs, Pub March 8th 2010 by Midnight Ink, ISBN13: 9780738718903

I recently moved to Pennsylvania and I anticipate attending a local bookclub in my rural area which focuses on mystery writers. The theme for this month is entitled “Deviant Detectives” which is interesting enough, but the organizers had also given a list of suggested authors, a list upon which many names were unfamiliar to me. I finally chose an author who had a couple trade paperbacks on the shelves in my small community library—C. S. Challinor.

The back copy did not introduce the author, so after skimming a page or two of the mystery which begins with the memorable line, “…the volcanic formation of Arthur’s Seat resembled a pair of buttocks,” I guessed the author to be a Scottish male. Wrong. The main character is a Scottish male barrister but the author is female, from Bloomington, Indiana. Later I would have reason to question the choice of a male protagonist by the author.

While I ended up enjoying what the author wanted to do—create a locked door mystery— the male viewpoint was not a natural fit and exposed some stereotypes the author leaned on to give depth and interest to the detective. Challinor might have done better with a strong female lead. This third in the Rex Graves series was published in 2010.

Rex Graves has a son, Campbell, attending university at a small liberal arts college in Jacksonville, Florida. On the very day Rex arrives at his son’s dorm, a student the floor below is found hanging from the ceiling fan in his room. Rex starts asking questions and notices some inconsistencies in explanations given by the student’s peers.

Perhaps because Challinor is new to me, or perhaps because her characters acting differently than I would have were I in their place, I found myself questioning the voices of the characters, rankling a little when I felt the author was putting on a Scottish man’s knowledge of Florida, even a father’s attitude towards his son.

Instead I would rather talk about what I liked about this novel and that would be Rex himself. He has a level of compassion for youthful mistakes that is reassuring and his attitude towards those who are bullied at school is supportive. If at first I was horrified about the way he spoke with Moira, his old flame who had just returned from Iraq, I later determined that Rex had a reason for his emotional distance from her that may have played out earlier in the series.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what I have come to see as unconscious racism in the novel that positively jump out at me now that I’ve spent several years trying to see my own biases. The author relies on racial stereotypes when describing the one black character in the novel, i.e., “grace of a panther” and “a smile…the dazzling whiteness of halogen bulbs.” And she describes Jacksonville black neighborhoods as the probable source of the crime found in the city. Small cuts, but they still bleed.

Aside from this, a key clue in the novel revolved around something that appears to me to be an authorial and editorial oversight: a button from a hoodie. In all my years I have never seen a hoodie with buttons. They are either pull-overs or zippered. Surprising that such a glaring offense would get through the numerous checks an author must have to curb their worst tendencies while fictionalizing.

This mystery made me question what I like about mystery series and I began to list the things I look for: an author who sees the bad in human circumstance but who still creates a lead character with a strong moral compass; motivations I recognize; lack of triviality when dealing with matters of life and death; a sense of humor; an author who is not sloppy—may misdirect but who does not obfuscate.

One of my favorite crime-solving duos would be Hap and Leonard, a series created by Joe R. Lansdale and set in Texas. The pair, a gay black war veteran and a white working-class draft dodger who have been best friends since childhood, embody all the things I love in mysteries and/or crime novels including the contradictory pairing of sincerity and a deep humor. The series was turned into a SundanceTV series (starring Michael Kenneth Williams and James Purefoy) for three seasons.

C.S. Challinor has been a successful author since at least 2008 and now has eight books in the Rex Graves series. Her publisher, Midnight Ink, a division of Llewellyn better known for New Age titles, is based in Minnesota. Llewellyn recently announced it plans to close Midnight Ink in August 2019, citing lack of sales. Three editors will lose their jobs as a result of the closing. First launched in 2005, Midnight Ink had a 15-year run.

Rex Graves did not rank as a "Deviant Detective" by his own words: the most illegal thing he'd ever done was to assist someone with a break-and-entry. I guess I would put Janet Evanovich on the list. See what you think about the other authors mentioned:
Betty Webb
Harry Kemelman
Peter Ellis
Parnell Hall
Gillian Roberts
Joanne Fluke
Aaron Elkins
Sarah Andrews