Betty Webb is the author of the best-selling Lena Jones Mystery Series and the humorous Gunn Zoo mysteries. Before beginning to write mystery novels, Betty spent twenty years as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, Nobel Prize-winners, and polygamy runaways. Learn more about Betty and her books at her two websites: www.bettywebb-mystery.com and www.bettywebb-zoomystery.com.
Like many writers, I write more than one series. My first mystery was, Desert Noir, in which a Scottsdale AZ art gallery owner is murdered, possibly by her violent ex-husband. Blood and gore all over the place, plus beatings, shootings, stabbings, and I don’t know what-all. Everything but poison, I think. Well, that was in the Desert series, starring P.I. Lena Jones, and since it was set in the Sonoran Desert, life was always rough. And I was a journalist, and had seen more than one dead body.
After the fifth book, however, I retired from the newspaper, and to my surprise, my soul began to gentle. Instead of starting the day with a snarl and a snap, I stretched, smiled, fed the kitties, then wandered around trying to figure out how to fill my time. Work on another Lena Jones Desert book? No, I felt too cheerful, I wanted to write something… nice.
Now, writers are terrible snoops, but we’ve perfected the art of looking like we’re minding our own business. One day, when I was relaxing over a decaf at the local Starbucks, I eavesdropped on a couple of women, both in their sixties, one blond, the other a redhead, discussing their volunteer work at the Phoenix Zoo. It sounded interesting, so I scooted closer. I learned that they both worked in a location named Monkey Village, and they were suffering a shortage of volunteers.
“Just one more would make things easier,” the redhead said. “Then we’d be able to take breaks.”
Giving up all pretense of minding-my-own-business, I slid across the sofa and said, “How does one volunteer?”
Three weeks later, after intensive training sessions, I was in Monkey Village – right IN the enclosure – watching delightedly as a squirrel monkey named Captain Kirk ran across my foot, chased by Spock. (Yes, all the monkeys had Star Trek names). I stayed in Monkey Village for about five years, then went on to become a Trail Guide. My new life was both easier and sweeter.
Don’t get me wrong. I still wrote those grisly Lena Jones books – ten in all – but after starting to work at the zoo, I added a new series – The Gunn Zoo Mysteries. Starting with The Anteater of Death, in which a giant anteater named Lucy helps zookeeper Theodora “Teddy” Bentley find out who killed the uber-wealthy member of the Gunn Zoo Guild. The book was a hit, partially because I’d moved the Phoenix Zoo to California, and the Monterey Bay area and had given Teddy a neat little houseboat to live on. After Anteater, came The Koala of Death, The Llama of Death, The Puffin of Death, The Otter of Death, and now – ta da! – The Panda of Death!
To be clear – no animals are ever hurt in any of these books, although humans die like flies. They’re deaths aren’t grisly, though. In strict keeping with the “cozy” tradition, the deaths tend to be off-screen, and the poor wretch has usually been dead for hours before zookeeper Teddy stumbles across his corpse.
In The Panda of Death, however, someone else finds the first dead body. Teddy is at the zoo, interviewing a Tyrannosaurus Rex (in costume, of course), the lead character in a children’s TV show named Tippy-Toe & Tinker, when she gets a call from one of her friends at the harbor informing her that there’s a dead man floating next to her boat. And it looks like the dead man is the writer of Tippy-Toe & Tinker. As the book goes along, a few more humans are felled, and one of the animals in the zoo comes across a clue that solves the case. That animal is Poona, a loveable red panda who delights in being cuddled. But she does not delight in visits from killers.
In an interesting side plot, a young man shows up at Teddy’s and her new husband’s door claiming to be her new husband’s son – and that he has the DNA test to prove it. This, by the way, is not fiction. In doing my own DNA, I discovered that I had a brother I didn’t know I had, and after we met, I decided to put the experience into The Panda of Death.
And that’s probably why The Panda of Death will always be my favorite of my 18 books.
The Panda of Death
The Gunn Zoo Series, Book 6
California zookeeper Theodora Bentley is now happily married to Sheriff Joe Rejas. The Gunn Zoo is celebrating the arrival of Poonya, an adorable red panda, who forms a strong bond with Teddy. All appears fairytale blissful in the small Monterey Bay village of Gunn Landing until Teddy's mother-in-law, mystery writer Colleen Rejas, has discovered through DNA testing that Joe has sired a son he knew nothing about. Dylan Coyle, 18, arrives to meet his biological family... and then is arrested for murder.
By the end of the book, besides solving the crime, Teddy and Colleen have learned that the term "family" does not always mean blood kin. It often includes those who?although no blood relationship?are still held close in our hearts.