Big Game (2015) by Stuart Gibbs represents a third visit to FunJungle, the gigantic Texan zoo owned by billionaire J.J. McCracken where 12 year-old Teddy Fitzroy lives with his primatologist mother and photographer father. And, as the title would suggest, it seems something beyond animal conservation is on someone’s mind.
Teddy’s two previous encounters with criminality at FunJungle saw him identifying a hippo murderer and a koala snatcher, both under the noses of the park’s security personnel, and so when someone takes a shot at Rhonda the Rhino one morning he’s itching to get involved…except of course, this being a book for younger readers, he inevitably finds himself exclu–
“I won’t kid you,” J.J. said, “I’m extremely concerned about this. I want to find whoever fired that shot before they try again — and I think you might be of considerable assistance in doing that.”
“You mean, you want me to help investigate?” I asked.
Oh, right, this time J.J. McCracken actually enlists Teddy’s help — “You’re like our own personal Encyclopedia Brown. It doesn’t make sense to keep you on the sidelines” — but, since it seems unlikely Teddy’s parents will be delighted with this development, it’s suggested that this arrangement be kept secret at first. And so opens up the first of many interesting doors.
In a world which seems to be running full-tilt towards the increasingly partisan, it’s extremely pleasing to read a book for younger readers in which there is so much grey. J.J.’s soliciting of Teddy’s help should be a source of excitement, and would be but for the fact that the billionaire more or less blackmail’s Teddy into helping by once again threatening his parents’ jobs at FunJungle. And so the adults he is supposed to trust are the ones he’s lying to, and the one he has to be honest with is someone he doesn’t think he can trust…a situation made even trickier by Teddy’s growing friendship with and attraction to McCracken’s 13 year-old daughter, Summer.
On top of this, Gibbs is also remarkably even-handed in examining the pure concept of hunting animals for sport. While clearly no advocate of the killing of wildlife, Gibbs gives his characters and readers the opportunity to see the people who engage in these activities as people, too — “A poacher in South Africa can make more money selling one rhino horn than he can working an honest job for three years” — and a visit to nearby hunting park SafariLand raises the point that, from whatever slightly uncomfortable motive, the hunting and animal conservation lobbies might have more in common that you’d think. A Dali-esque taxidermy room where an absence of talent in that field has left the animals looking cross-eyed and bilious, where the “once great” animal of a brown bear holding a drinks tray has been turned into little more than “a stuffed, nauseated butler”, allows the anti argument to make itself, but Gibbs deserves credit for once again not brow-beating his audience with the simple dogma that there is a single ‘correct’ stance to take.
And, of course, there is also the very enjoyable mystery of who tried to shoot Rhonda, and the ancillary questions that the shooting raises. Why shoot from inside the park when there’s an easily-accessible fence surrounding the safari section? Why use a silenced rifle for one attempt but not another? Why specifically shoot Rhonda, the only female, who is pregnant, than the male rhinos who were not locked away at the time? Like all good mysteries, the answers to the question that stack up are simple and, once provided, fill in the blanks in the scheme very tidily indeed. And, of course, we’re kept wise to the fact that the answers aren’t the result of some complex machinations: “Sometimes stupid people just want to make a mark on the world,” Teddy’s friend Xavier offers at one point, and again I applaud Gibbs playing the double game of supposedly offering up solace while actually taking away with the hand you’re not watching.
Being a book for 8-12 year olds, there’s a thread of Teddy and Summer having to juggle their school life with their fame and/or knowledge of what’s going on in FunJungle — pray for Pete Thwacker, FunJungle’s chief propagandist, who takes yet another step on his journey towards full-blown Stalinist demagogue — and again it folds in well without overpowering or distracting elsewhere. And while I was hoping that the side plot involving the mysterious thefts might have more to do with the central mystery than it does, the resolution of it is charming in the best possible way…not least because it gives me no reason to doubt that it’s very possible indeed.
And Teddy Fitzroy himself continues to grow on me, progressed as he is from the seemingly inconsiderate numpty of first title Belly Up (2010) into an interesting protagonist who is both aware of the importance of what he’s doing and able to drop some fabulous one-liners:
I’m not sure which startled her more, the fact that I was handcuffed, or that I was accompanied by a chocolate-smeared orangutan.
Gibbs’ talent for edutainment is on full display, too, with a keen eye for how to make the frankly unusual workings of FunJungle — taking the elephants for a morning walk, the need to leave dung in the rhino enclosure — relatable to an audience who will doubtless never have encountered anything of its ilk. Hell, when you can fold the fact that sloths are their own ecosystem into a mystery which had me looking in entirely the wrong direction — I didn’t know who to suspect, but it never occurred to me to suspect…them — in a novel which rips along and had me laughing out loud on several occasions…well, I’d call that a win. Expect a return visit to FunJungle before too long.
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)
- Whale Done (2023)
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