Where do writers get their idea? As the old joke goes, sometimes they buy them at Wal-Mart. In my case, however, I get my ideas by watching real live people do real live crazy things, which is exactly how I came up with the plot of THE LLAMA OF DEATH.
I may be best known for my noir-ish Lena Jones mystery series, but I also write the humorous and cozy-ish Gunn Zoo mysteries, which means some pretty loveable animals turn out to be characters in those books. We’re talking koalas, anteaters, lemurs, giraffes, wombats, honey badgers… On second thought, maybe honey badgers aren’t all that adorable, although their mothers probably love them.
But back to THE LLAMA OF DEATH.
In addition to my love for llamas, I’ve always been a devoted fan of Renaissance fairs, so a couple of years ago I dragged poor Hubby to one in Apache Junction, Arizona. While checking out the fractured Renaissance-speak of peasants, knights, and fancy-dressed royalty, I happened to spy something that was, to my animal-loving soul, even funnier: the expression on a young teenager’s face as she led a llama around with a child on its back. The child looked thrilled, the llama looked peaceful, but the teenager looked like she would rather have been taking an algebra test.
The girl was wearing one of those long, fussy, tightly-laced dresses we’ve all come to associate with Renaissance fairs, and while she was leading the llama around with one hand, she was busy tugging up her low-cut bodice with the other. When I smiled at her, she scowled back. She was miserable, and like most teenagers, wanted everyone to know just how miserable she was.
With that scowl, THE LLAMA OF DEATH was born.
THE ANTEATER OF DEATH, the first book in the Gunn Zoo series, introduced Theodora “Teddy” Iona Esmeralda Bentley, a zookeeper who lives on a houseboat in at the northern edge of California’s stunning Monterey Bay and commutes to work at the zoo in a rusty pickup truck. Teddy loves animals, and is a frequent visitor to the local animal shelter, where she helps adopt out some of the less-lovely animals. Those she can’t find homes for, she keeps – such as DJ Bonz, her three-legged terrier, and Miss Priss, her one-eyed cat.
Teddy grew up rich, but after her rapscallion of a father embezzled several million dollars and fled to Costa Rica, the Feds moved in and took all her family’s assets, leaving them impoverished. Caro, Teddy’s mother, a former beauty queen, decided that the only thing left to do was to marry a series of wealthy men, then demand large settlements during the following divorces, thus restoring the Bentley family to its former financial glory. It worked, but poor Teddy sometimes feels like half the millionaires in California have at one time served as her stepfathers.
In THE LLAMA OF DEATH, the money-grubbing Caro gets her just desserts. When Teddy’s boss at the Gunn Zoo makes her take a llama named Alejandro to the Gunn Landing Renaissance Faire, the zookeeper is at first as disgusted as that real-life teenage I saw in Apache Junction. But since giving llama rides to young children helps raise money for the local no-kill animal shelter, Teddy soon makes peace with the task. However, during Teddy’s first night at the fair, the man acting the part of Henry the Eighth is found dead in Alejandro’s pen. At first the llama is suspected of trampling the man to death, but after the cause of death is discovered to be a crossbow arrow to the neck, suspicion shifts to Caro. The dead man had promised the fair’s role of Anne Boleyn to her, then reneged, whereupon the two had had a loud, public brawl. When Caro is arrested, it’s up to Teddy to track down the real killer.
Other characters in THE LLAMA OF DEATH include a nervous teenager who plays the part of the fair’s leper, a no-better-than-she-ought-to-be blonde named Bambi, a Shakespeare-spouting drama teacher, and Sssbyl, the Gunn Zoo’s escaped Mojave rattlesnake, who Tweets about her adventures while on the lam. By the way, if that tweeting snake sounds familiar, think back about the news story where a boa constrictor began tweeting after it escaped from its zoo.
Yes, newspapers are great places to get ideas, too.
The plot of THE LLAMA OF DEATH may be goofy, but the critics don’t seem to mind. Of the book, Library Journal said: “Webb’s third zoo series entry winningly melds a strong animal story with the engaging amateur sleuth tale. Set at a relaxed pace with abundant zoo filler, the title never strays into too-cute territory, instead presenting the real deal.” Publishers Weekly wrote: “Human relationships prove more taxing than animal ones in Webb’s amusing third Gunn Zoo mystery… Animal lore and human foibles spiced with a hint of evil test Teddy’s patience and crime-solving in this appealing cozy.”
After reading those reviews, I realized I owed a heart-felt Thank You note for that poor teenager at the Apache Junction Renaissance Faire, so as soon as the fair opens next month, I’ll head back.
With a Thank You note for the llama, too.
Betty Webb is the author of the nationally best-selling Lena Jones mystery series (DESERT WIVES, DESERT NOIR, DESERT WIND, etc.) and the humorous Gunn Zoo mysteries (THE KOALA OF DEATH, THE LLAMA OF DEATH, etc.). Before beginning to write full time, Betty worked as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, Nobel Prize-winners, and polygamy runaways. She has taught creative writing classes and workshops at Arizona State University and Phoenix College. Betty is a member of the National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime. She is also a member of the National Association of Zookeepers.
For information about the Gunn Zoo books, log onto www.bettywebb-zoomystery.com
For information about the Lena Jones books log onto, www.bettywebb-mystery.com
Author of THE LLAMA OF DEATH, due out Jan. 6, 2013
and DESERT WIND, starred review in Publishers Weekly,