“Can you call it homicide if the victim is a hippo?” asks the back cover of this first entry in Stuart Gibbs’ Funjungle series and, from a purely Latin perspective, no you can’t. However, the brilliance of Gibbs’ endeavour here is how much he adheres to the fundamental form of the murder mystery despite this core difference.
See, if ever there was a character who was being set up as the victim of a future, er, hippocide, it’s Henry, the real life inspiration for the mascot of billionaire J.J. McCracken’s Funjungle animal park. “For a hippopotamus, he had a lot of enemies” — having hospitalised various keepers at the four zoos who successively palmed him off, Brutus (as he was originally called) had also been a damp squib where mating was concerned, veering between aloofness…
In Los Angeles, where they tended to psychoanalyze things a bit too much, one keeper had accused Brutus of giving the female he was paired with “a devastating case of low self esteem”.
…and terrifying violence, and was unfortunately fond of spraying watching crowds with faeces (a way of asserting dominance in the wild, apparently). Alas, as part of the publicity drive ahead of the park’s opening — and before Brutus had been acquired and renamed — the public had already decided that ‘Henry’ should be the mascot, and so Funjungle was stuck with him, and almost everyone hated him more on this account. It’s not as if hippos are pleasant animals at the best of times (“In the wild, they’ve been known to stomp lions to death and bite crocodiles in half.”), but it still comes as a surprise to the park staff in general when Henry is found floating belly-up in his enclosure. And when an autopsy by the park’s chief vet uncovers a canny method of murder, the police swing into action and are swift to track the killer down…
…oh, wait, not they’re not.
This being a book for 8 to 12 year-olds, the sleuthing is going to typically fall to an 8 to 12 year-old, and the economy and intelligence with which Gibbs isolates 12 year-old Teddy Fitzroy is actually very impressive. It’s clear early on that Teddy’s somewhat on his own already — he comes across like a bit of a pillock at first, to be honest — and, when his attempts to alert the authorities fall not just on deaf ears but querulous ones, he resolves to find the killer even if (or, indeed, because) non-one else is interested.
Through the voice of Teddy, Gibbs does some great work in acknowledging the purpose and benefits of zoos in the face of opposition from animal rights groups: the role they play in propagating nearly-extinct species, their being arguably a grassroots form of conservation (“Most people don’t get to grow up in the Congo like I did. Instead, they come to care about gorillas or elephants or polar bears because they see them in zoos.”), and the fact that people who come to work in this setting are likely going to be the ones who have a keen interest in animal welfare. The more time you spend with Teddy, the more he endears himself to you, with some astoundingly pithy quips: the mascots at Disney World being played by “young aspiring actors so desperate to break into show business that they considered dressing as a giant mouse to be a good career move”, his intended role as young sleuth being complicated because “[i]t’s very hard to be taken seriously when everyone’s wondering where your mother is”, or this simply glorious observation from Henry’s huge public funeral:
I’d heard that the Archbishop had balked [at taking the funeral] at first, considering it undignified — until J.J. had hinted that he might recruit a prominent rabbi instead. Apparently, lack of dignity was less important to the Archbishop than letting the world think Henry was Jewish.
Regarding the mystery, Gibbs does some good work with unusual clues — the scattering of droppings around the trailer Teddy shares with his parents, the presence of animals that the park doesn’t actually possess yet, the unusual method of dispatch used in removing Henry — and a couple of set pieces (the funeral takes a very kid-pleasing turn). The sense that he has wandered into something very serious is well-handled, too: a setting filled with poisonous reptiles, carnivores, and all other manner of death traps is perhaps not the ideal space to occupy when trying to track down a murderer. I’m not completely convinced that the final answer is as compelling as it could be, nor that a 12 year-old would use the word “conniption”, but this is Gibbs’ first novel and the Moon Base Alpha books show he would improve in meshing the necessities of plot and clewing, so I’m willing to give him a pass on this because I already know that he’s done better work elsewhere.
Perhaps the most interesting thread in the whole book comes from teddy’s interactions with Summer McCracken, the 13 year-old daughter of Funjungle’s billionaire owner. The two come from very different circles, but find a common interest in tracking down the killer…even if their relationship hits rocks at various times over the different eyes they see the world through:
“You try to do something normal…and the next thing you know, there’s a thousand lights flashing in your face…and within thirty minutes there’s the least flattering pictures of you possible all over the Internet and a million chat rooms are talking about whether or not you’re fat. It’s the worst thing ever.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Back when I was in the Congo, kids our age were dying of malaria and malnutrition and half their families had been killed in the war, but they’d always say ‘Thank God no-one’s taking pictures of us against our will.'”
The uncertainty that hovers between them — and the ease with which it’s both asserted and dismissed, only to be asserted again — shows great skills on Gibbs’ part, and thankfully stops this ever feeling like a sort of twee Kids On An Adventure undertaking. While his obfuscation and construction skills might not be at their peak here, the observation of his central characters is enough to justify further interest in this series. Which is just as well, because I’ve bought the first six books already.
Teddy Fitzroy will return…
Stuart Gibbs’ mysteries for younger readers:
- Belly Up (2010)
- Poached (2014)
- Big Game (2015)
- Panda-monium (2017)
- Lion Down (2019)
- Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (2020)
- Bear Bottom (2021)
Moon Base Alpha