The Llama of Death by Betty Webb
Books for review come to me in two different ways. The more usual route is directly from the publishers or from the Sacramento/San Francisco Book Reviews team. Occasionally I accept books when the authors or their agents ask. As I post at least one review a day, this means I consume a significant amount of product and, when I don’t know the author, the only guide is the title. That’s why I come to be reviewing The Llama of Death by Betty Webb (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013). How can anyone not be intrigued by a title suggesting a llama attacking a human, blinding it with its spit and ripping the victim’s throat out before completing the death-dealing by trampling triumphantly. It just conjures up such an incongruous image. In this I was guided by my experience some twenty-five or so years ago in helping to manage a camel racing element in an event for a large arena audience. I had thought my experience in Egypt where I had ridden camels would be an asset. Sadly I was mistaken and quickly learned just how stubborn and bad-tempered these beasts can be. But llamas. . . I had them pegged as smaller and sweeter in disposition. As an irrelevant aside, back in the 1970s and for the same reason, I also read “The Platypus of Doom”, “The Armadillo of Destruction”, “The Aardvark of Despair” and “The Clam of Catastrophe” (they’re novelettes by Arthur Byron Cover).
Well, to complete my education into predatory mammals, I picked the title from a list of books available to review having no idea what to expect. A month or so later, the book cycles to the top of the to-be-read pile and I do a little internet search. I now know Betty Webb runs two series of novels. The Lena Jones mysteries are darker PI novels set in Arizona. This is the third in the Gunn Zoo series and it’s described as a “cosy”, i.e. it’s one of these gentle stories with a faintly romantic element featuring a young lady who becomes involved in sleuthing and prevails when a combination of common sense and Googlitis is leavened with a yeasty thriller scenario. Obviously she makes little secret of her curiosity when gadding about town in search of killers and therefore makes a target of herself when said killers see her edging closer. It’s not the most original of mystery formats but what lifts this out of the rut is her day job in a local zoo. This book offers us the chance to observe our heroine deal with the llama in a Renaissance Faire setting where the “cute” animal enjoys giving rides to children. It should be said that the beast is less well-inclined towards adults because of the abuse doled out by the previous owner. But it looks bad for our wool-packer when a body is found at its feet. Were it not for the crossbow bolt sticking out of the victim’s neck and the llama’s lack of opposing thumbs, things might have looked bad for her. As it is, she’s able to resume children carrying the next day as if nothing had happened.
However, with a moronically inclined deputy suddenly elevated to police officer in charge, only a few hours pass before our heroine’s mother is arrested and charged with the murder. When she offers her view of the arresting officer’s behaviour to the judge at the bail hearing, she’s committed to jail for inciting a riot. This leaves the daughter with the task of working out the real killer’s identity as the evidence suggests not only opportunity but also motive for her mother to have done the dastardly deed.
There’s a rather pleasing amiability about the story-telling style. There are no laugh-out-loud moments, but there’s a quiet sense of humour in the background as the llama offers comfort and advice to the keeper, albeit in the code only llamas and their keepers know. As someone who likes the chance to try working out whodunnit as I read through, I found there were rather a lot of people to keep track of — a task not made any easier because, during the Faire, we see them in costume playing different parts and roles. This adds an extra layer of complexity and, as an old guy with a fallible memory, I slightly gave up on the investigative side. I simply read uncritically to discover whodunnit and why. The answer is rather pleasing with all the factors meshing together in a thrillerish climax as the zoo experiences a lion on the loose from its compound. It’s always good to have the accused running around waving a gun in the air. It’s reasonable to take this as an admission of guilt.
So when you put all this together, The Llama of Death proved to be enjoyable in a comfortable, nonthreatening way. It lacked the nihilistic edginess of “The Platypus of Doom” but we have to judge the book as we find it and this is fun.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.