Puffins? OK, I guess, but I’m not really into birds, though my colleague from Newfoundland probably approves of puffins.
Despite the usual connection with Newfoundland, the puffins in this mystery are actually in Iceland. And therein lies most of the appeal of the book, at least for me. It’s pretty much a standard cozy — not my favorite mystery sub-genre — with a lot of information about Iceland thrown in along the way. Not just Iceland, but the Icelandic language as well, which clearly added to the appeal in my eyes.
Author Betty Webb’s research is impeccable, at least as far as I can tell. I am far from an expert on either Iceland or Icelandic, but I’ve heard a lot about both Iceland ant the Icelandic language from friends and colleagues; every last detail in The Puffin of Death rings true, with nothing contradicting my knowledge. Linguistically it’s spot on.
“But how is it as a mystery?” you ask.
The answer is that it’s pretty good — nothing special, but OK. Good enough to make me want to read at least one other book in the series. So, let’s see, do I prefer llamas or anteaters? Or koalas? Yes, the earlier works this series are all titled “The ____ of Death,” where you can fill in the blank with “llama,” “anteater,” or “koala.” I think the choice has to be koala, don’t you?
So, back to the puffins. What we have here is basically your standard cozy, though taking place in Iceland rather than a quaint English village. The amateur detective — the protagonist of the whole series, of course — is a zookeeper from a private zoo in California, sent by the zoo to Iceland to pick up several critters, primarily a polar bear cub, orphaned because his mother drowned as a result of melting polar ice caps. Supporting characters mostly fit into the standard trope: a group of people thrown together for extraneous reasons (in this case a birding expedition); two of them get killed, and the perp must be one of the group, only to be identified by the amateur detective because the police are useless, and the detective has to be in danger at one point. If this reminds you of Agatha Christie, I’m sure you’re not alone — not that there’s anything wrong with Agatha Christie. The group is conventionally diverse, mostly portrayed two-dimensionally except for the amateur detective. The ending is as it should be: unpredictable but convincing. The novel as a whole is fun, dragging only in a couple of spots. The plot is effective and doesn’t strain credulity.
All in all, I wouldn’t buy the book, especially not in hard cover, but it was worth reading the library copy. Judging by just one book (a dangerous idea), this series is not as good as Webb’s more serious Mormon series, but that’s probably just a matter of taste.