Poisoned Pen Press has just released "Endangered," Portland author Ann Littlewood's third zoo-based mystery featuring impetuous single mom Iris Oakley.
This yarn opens when cages of exotic animals are discovered during a drug bust at a remote farm in southwestern Washington.
As zookeepers at Vancouver's Finley Memorial Zoo, Iris and fellow employee Denny Stellar are sent on a mission to retrieve the animals so that the zoo can temporarily house them while law enforcement sorts out matters.
They find parrots, rare tortoises, and a pair of macaws being kept in deplorable conditions. It appears that the animals have been smuggled into the country, another aspect of the illicit operations taking place on the property.
Iris also comes across the previously undiscovered body of a young woman who has been murdered and left in a tangle of blackberries on the farm's perimeter.
There are too many animals to transport at once, so Iris and Denny need to make a couple of trips over a couple of days to get all of the exotic animals back to the zoo. On their penultimate trip in the zoo van, they are forced to a stop on the lonely road by a trio of ill-kempt men. It is the "farmer" and his grown sons, who have made bail and are returning to the farm, mad as hornets. But in the scuffle that ensues, the dad suffers a fatal heart attack, and the sons disappear into the surrounding woods.
With a murder, a major drug bust, the death of one suspect, and two other armed and dangerous suspects on the loose, the cops have their hands full.
Until the case is resolved, the zoo is expected to keep the confiscated animals in quarantine. But space is an issue, so Iris's boss asks her to keep the macaws at her house for the short term.
For Iris, a dedicated animal lover, her new "roommates" serve as a goading reminder that the wildlife smuggling operation they stumbled across is being overlooked. While the cops focus on other aspects of this tangled case, she is keen to discover who is masterminding the illegal trafficking in exotic animals.
But when the fugitive brothers break into her home, demanding information she doesn't have, she realizes that her own life and that of her son are in real danger.
In this book, Iris Oakley continues to mature as a mother, a daughter, an employee and a friend. While the dialogue Littlewood gives her heroine doesn't always ring true for a 20-something woman, the milieu the author creates for Iris is convincing enough, from child-care issues to housing woes to tentative romantic forays.
The behind-the-scenes tidbits about zoo operations are interesting. And the underlying threads about wildlife conservation and the threats posed by the trade in illegal exotic animals are timely and compelling. The author, a former zookeeper herself, knows her stuff and does a good job of sharing it.
This series is going to be fun to follow.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.