Monday, September 29, 2008


Ann Littlewood, author of NIGHT KILL, a “zoo-dunnit”, is graciously adding a guest post to the blog today. Here's what she has to say about why she writes mysteries set in zoos:

Let’s assume—why not?—that you intend to write a mystery. Among the daunting number of decisions and choices you need to make is the locale. Where, exactly, are your characters going to enact that fantastic plot that’s almost clear in your mind? Be warned, you’re going to live in this place for at least a couple of years and probably never escape it entirely.

For me, it was an easy call. I abandoned zookeeping for a corporate cubical and I missed it, missed the animals and the people and all that biology. A zoo is a rich source of ways to die (tigers, elephants, pythons, dart pistols…) and great terminology (prüsten, flehmen, lek, “shit” as a technical term) as well as plenty of births, illnesses, injuries, and deaths. I can populate it with any animals I want (the research is the most fun ever); I get to name it after a stellar Northwest conservationist—William Finley, and name my human characters after biologists. And half the characters are critters. What better place to pack up and move my mind to?

I don’t have to share the place with a divorce-wracked detective drinking unto oblivion in a grubby bar, the vicious cop who decided to fight for justice after all but still has to pay for past sins, a serial killer hacking up a woman after a fun evening of sex torture… Nope, I chose the smell of zebra manure over stale beer, a male mandrill monkey terrorizing females half his size over a john punching out a prostitute, a quarantine room with rare frogs over a police station interrogation room. No need to keep it to sweet cooing and gentle cheeping—plenty of opportunity for the ground to shake when a rhino whirls and charges, the sound of lion jaws crushing a femur, or the smell of guts when a carcass is ripped open.

And what about those characters? Some times they show up round and full, ready to roll. Sometimes I start with somebody real and then warp and subtract and expand until I find who I’m looking for. Of course I need to understand what this character wants and how he or she intends to get that. But the most fun for me is trying to see through a character’s eyes, and my characters, some of them, see through a different lens. I reach back to my twelve years as a card-carrying zookeeper, after a college degree in behavioral psychology. Immersion in natural history and animal behavior changes how you react to other people, changes what you see and hear, changes how you raise your child. Plenty for a writer to work with there, especially when zoo characters, human and otherwise, think in terms of dominance hierarchies, social alliances, and survival instincts.

And plot? Not to deny our humanity, our wonderfully deviant DNA, but we really are just a great ape that’s gotten a little ahead of itself. Yeah, sure, we create Roundup Ready corn seed, artificial heart valves, ginormous dams, and the iPod, but we can’t resist our innate love of fat and sugar, we are suckers for addictions, we haven’t a clue why we make the choices we do, and we’re largely blind to the consequences of our own actions. That disconnection between our flashy modern cortex and our hidden, recalcitrant, intuitive ancient brain is the stuff of conflict, and conflict is the blood and bone of fiction.

So that’s why I write mysteries set in zoos.

Ann Littlewood was a zoo keeper in Portland, Oregon for twelve years. She raised golden cats and raccoon dogs, an orangutan and mandrill monkeys, as well as parrots, penguins, lions, and tigers. And not to forget a multitude of native mammals and birds. She was bitten by young lions, wolves, seals, barn owls, and Canada geese, scratched by bears and cougars, and once cornered by a terrifying domestic pig. These experiences were distilled into a new mystery series set in a fictional Northwest zoo.

The financial realities of raising primates (two boys of her own) led Ann to exchange a hose and rubber boots for a briefcase and pantsuit in the healthcare industry. Ann has maintained her membership in the American Association of Zookeepers and has kept in touch with the zoo world by visiting zoos and through friendships with zoo staffers.

1 comment:

Maryannwrites said...

Ann, so nice to see you here. I feel like we are old friends. :-) I do need to get my review of your book posted on I loved the book, just haven't had time to write the review. I've been busy this month with my book tour, and was even here once this month. I love this blog and visit often, even if I don't always leave a comment. :-)

Congrats on having such a great opening weekend for your book.

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