Monday, November 23, 2015

The Puffin of Death (A Gunn Zoo Mystery)

Author:  Betty Webb
Genre:  Mystery

Hardcover, Paperback, E-book
ISBN #:  9781464204142; 9781464204166
Poisoned Pen Press Publishing
243 Pages
$26.95; $12.93; $9.99 Amazon
November 3, 2015
Four Stars

California zookeeper Theodora Bentley travels to Iceland to pick up an orphaned polar bear cub destined for the Gunn Zoo's newly installed Northern Climes exhibit.  The trip is intended to be a combination of work and play.  But on day two, while horseback riding near a picturesque seaside village, Teddy discovers a man lying atop a puffin burrow, shot through the head.  The victim is identified as American bird-watcher Simon Parr, winner of the largest Powerball payout in history.  Is Teddy a witness - or a suspect?  Others include not only Parr's wife, a famed romance novelist, but fellow members of the birding club Parr had generously treated to their lavish Icelandic expedition.  Hardly your average birders, several of them have had serious brushes with the law back in the States.  Guessing that an American would best understand other Americans, police detective Thorvaald Haraldsson grudgingly concedes her innocence and allows Teddy to tag along with the group to volcanoes, glaciers, and deep continental rifts in quest of rare bird species.  But once another member of the club is murdered and a rockfall barely misses Teddy's head, Haraldsson forbids her to continue.  She ignores him and, in a stunning, solitary face-off with the killer in Iceland's wild interior, concludes an investigation at once exotic, thrilling, and rich in animal lore.


Theodora "Teddy" Bentley is a zookeeper with the Gunn Zoo in California.  She is told by her employer that she needs to travel to Iceland and pick up a polar bear, two Icelandic foxes and two puffins.  On the airplane, she hears a brawl in first class between a couple of birders that almost gets their plane diverted - Simon Parr, a man with Elvis sideburns whom Teddy refers to as Drunk Elvis, and another passenger.  The argument was so heated that drunken Simon is sent back to sit with others in coach.

When she arrives she is greeted by a local zookeeper and the person she will be staying with while in Reykjavik, Bryndis Sigurdsdottir.  Bryndis will not only help Teddy acclimate herself with Magnus, the polar bear, and the others she is returning with, but also be her tour guide for the week she will be spending in Iceland.  Luckily, everyone in Iceland not only speaks their native language, but fluent English as well, so Teddy doesn't need an interpreter.

After spending the day meeting her new charges at the zoo, Bryndis takes Teddy out for a night on the town.  While they are enjoying their evening, there are the obvious sounds of a fight coming from another room in the tavern, and even though Teddy wants no part of it, she happens to see what appears to be Drunk Elvis being slapped viciously by an Icelander, who turns out to be Bryndis' sometime-boyfriend Ragnar.

The next morning, Bryndis and Teddy are riding horses to see the Puffin burrows.  Unfortunately, Teddy also sees something else - the corpse of Drunken Elvis, atop one of the burrows.  He'd been shot in the head.  When the police arrive, they send the two women to the nearby hotel to wait until they need to be questioned, and not to say anything to anyone, including the rest of Simon's birding group, who happen to be at the hotel as well.  When Inspector Thorvaald Haraldsson arrives, he first speaks with Bryndis, then turns to Teddy and asks if she knows the dead man.  When Teddy learns he was the biggest winner of the Powerball lottery, and that his wife is a famous novelist, Elizabeth St. John, she is naturally intrigued - and also informed by Inspector Haraldsson that he knows about her but the Icelandic National Police do not need her help in solving the crime and to stay out of it.

But later on, when Bryndis' boyfriend Ragnar is arrested for the murder, Bryndis turns to Teddy for help and begs her to find the real person responsible, since Bryndis is sure it must be one of the American birders that were on the tour with Simon.  Teddy, even though she doesn't want to get involved, knows she must help her new friend.  And once another person is murdered, Teddy is already in too deep to let go of the investigation.

Teddy begins thinking she is merely going to spend a week getting used to her new charge, Magnus the polar bear, and winds up in the middle of a murder investigation.   What she discovers along the way is not only did Simon win the Powerball, but it was he who paid for the entire trip for his friends.  With no dearth of subjects - there were ten people on the tour - Teddy has her work cut out for her.  She also finds out that each and every one of them has something to hide; and even when she calls a friend in the States for help, she's not getting the entire truth of the matter.

So Teddy plods on, because she (along with the other Americans) have had to surrender their passports to the police, and unless the murderer is found soon, she could be stuck in Iceland indefinitely, and Teddy wants nothing more than to go home to her beloved zoo and her fiance Joe.

I found it interesting that this book takes place in Iceland, and also learned a little bit about Icelandic customs and their people.  I also learned that they have several small earthquakes every week, which was enough to keep me from ever wanting to visit there (been there, done that).  But I enjoyed reading about it nevertheless.  While we are given information on Iceland and its inhabitants, it is woven into the mystery so that it doesn't overshadow it.  It is nicely done, and Teddy is never invasive to the point of being annoying.

When the murderer comes to light, we understand that in their own mind what they did was the only thing they could do at the time, even if we don't agree with the reasoning.  The ending was satisfying, and the book can be read as a stand alone, which is nice.  Recommended.


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