The Anteater of Death
By Betty Webb
Poisoned Pen Press,
December, 2008, Hard cover,
230 pages, $24.95,
This is the beginning of a new series for this veteran author. Just look again at the title. Somewhere in the back of my head there’s a Shakespeare quote. Ms. Webb is an accomplished writer with several excellent novels to her credit. This one is a distinct departure for her, and it seems she is almost unable to restrain herself. There are a great many asides and some tongue-in-cheek humor that sometimes distracts the reader from a rather thin plot, although the setting is intriguing and Webb uses it well.
Theodora Bentley, the central character in this drama, is a zoo-keeper in a private enterprise somewhere in Southern California in an old seaside town interestingly named Gunn Landing. This zoo is the private plaything of some very wealthy families who have deep roots in the community. The situation is made more complex because some of those family roots are deeply entangled in their own history. Thus there is a darkness to this novel which offers some opportunities for the author to move in directions which would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago.
One of Teddy Bentley’s responsibilities is the giant ant eater of the title, in the wild, a fearsome creature indeed, equipped with razor claws designed to rip logs open in search of ants. The book opens in the mind of this anteater, improbably named Lucy, in a highly unusual approach which has the potential to cause a number of readers to immediately close the book. I suggest that such readers persevere. Pregnant Lucy is disturbed when a male human enters her enclosure and she goes to investigate. Her investigation leads to an accusation that the animal has killed the man, a director of the zoo.
This accusation against Lucy rouses anger and frustration among the zookeepers especially Teddy. Gradually Teddy becomes snarled in the murder investigation, complicated by her own roots in the community and her past relationships with the Sheriff and several others. Eventually the smoothly written and complicated plot gets sorted out and Teddy receives lots of help from a substantial range of off-beat and even strange characters, not all of whom are caged in the zoo. Funny, ironic and sometimes irreverent, the book will give readers an inside look at zoo keeping, animal protectionism and the often distorted lives of wealthy idlers.