Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Night Kill (hardcover, $24.95), by Ann Littlewood

Portland author Ann Littlewood used to be Portland zookeeper Ann Littlewood. That's why her debut novel has so many great behind-the-scenes details about zookeeping. Just as Nevada Barr makes you appreciate man-in-nature, Littlewood makes you appreciate nature-in-captivity. They both say that we should be here on earth as keepers or preservers, not users. But that is merely the underlying theme. Both deal primarily with man-versus-man themes, culminating in murder.

Littlewood's murder begins in a dramatic fashion. "Big cat" zookeeper Iris Oakley's estranged husband is found dead in the tiger cage one morning. (Although Littlewood was a zookeeper in Portland, she sets her fictional zoo in Vancouver, Washington.)

Iris was on the point of reconciliation with Rick when he died. Mourning his death, Iris soon is mourning the loss of her job as well. During routine maintenance of a tiger exhibit, Iris suddenly finds herself face to face with the tiger. Did a preoccupied Iris forget to properly close his door, or did someone let him out of his pen? Distracted and emotionally off kilter, Iris is moved out of Big Cats and placed with crotchety Calvin to learn how to take care of his beloved birds. She is soon mixing and mashing fish and various smelly emulsions to feed penguins and other winged critters, but that doesn't stop strange things from happening.

Littlewood solidly grounds her story in the little details that could be jarring if absent or not done well. Her characters bloom off the page and their lives have substance. Her story doesn't have subterranean creatures or Vatican conspiracies, but it does have very human failings and aspirations.

The tigers did not murder Rich even if they did cause his death. The only animal capable of premeditated murder is the human kind.

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