When readers were introduced to Iris Oakley in Nightkill, she was a keeper in the big cat area of the Finley Memorial Zoo in Vancouver, Washington. Because she is now pregnant, she is not allowed to work around the cats and so readers find Iris in the bird department when Did Not Survive opens. Readers might assume then that the mystery in this book would involve birds. They would be wrong. Although readers do get a close up of the behind the scenes action in the zoo’s bird exhibit, elephants are the primary storyline in this second entry in the series. But cat fans will not be disappointed either as the Clouded Leopard figures into this book’s plot as well.
While the pacing of the book reflects the day in and day out routine of a zoo, the plot is stuffed full of action. It starts when Iris finds Kevin Wallace, one of the zoo administrators, unconscious and bleeding on the floor of the elephant barn cornered by Damrey, the zoo’s older elephant. While everyone except Sam the head elephant keeper is convinced Damrey is the culprit behind Wallace’s injures, no one can figure out why was he in the elephant exhibit in the first place. In the meantime, things at the Big Cat heats up. The Clouded Leopard gives birth and the staff if forced to say goodbye to one of its oldest and favorite animals. But then things get really strange. Someone begins snatching some of the animals-including the corpse of one recently departed!
There are several things that Littlewood does extremely well with this book. Clearly the author knows her subject matter well. The reader gets many looks at the behind the scenes action at a zoo and it’s easily worked into the story. While readers get a real sense of what really goes on, the needs for various animals’ exhibits and the current issues surrounding zoos, it’s done without being “preachy.”
Another thing the author does well is exploring the issue of zoos housing elephants. There is a major and ongoing debate between zoos and animal rights groups over whether zoos are suitable places for elephants to be kept. Littlewood addresses this issue in a very thorough and thoughtful way.
The author also handles the protagonist’s pregnancy well. Yes, Irish is pregnant, yes, there are mentions of preparations for the baby’s arrival, concern over what she can and cannot do physically at work, but the focus of the book remains squarely on the zoo and the mystery.
Zoos are small cities in many ways, and so it’s not unusual for a book set in a zoo to have a large cast of characters varying in importance from book to book. Because of that, it would be helpful for the reader if Littlewood would consider putting a “Cast of Characters” page in her next book to help the reader keep the various people and their relationships straight.
While this book will definitely appeal to zoo people, animal lovers and people with an interest in conservation issues, the mystery is a solid one that does not require any love of or knowledge about zoos or zoo animal to appreciate.