Donna Andrews: The Penguin Who Knew Too Much

Reading this book is some of the biggest fun I’ve had this summer. I was laughing aloud by the end of the first chapter, and it only got better. I had never read the five time Agatha nominee (and two time winner) Donna Andrews before her appointment to sign books here in August, but then I picked up her first Meg Lanslow novel, Murder with Peacocks, and now find myself totally hooked. She has all the plotting skills and characterization talents of the best cozy writers, layered with lots of humor and many, many eccentric characters. Using the classic small town formula – proved to be ironclad from “The Andy Griffith Show” right up through “Murder, She Wrote,” where the sane town lion is surrounded by lunatics or incompetents who aren’t quite as smart as he/she is – Andrews places her main character, Meg Lanslow, smack into the middle of one of the most eccentric families in mystery fiction.

Meg is an iron worker, but in her first outing she’s helping to plan not just one but three weddings (one of them her mother’s), none of which goes as it should. I recently sold a copy to a customer and was enthusing about it and she said, “Oh, I gave my copy away, and this is a book I re-read often.” I can see why. Meg’s extended Southern family is filled with eccentrics, starting with her father who loves mysteries, dead bodies, and explaining anything scientific about animals to his extended family (preferably with a live companion to demonstrate). It’s carried on into the next generation as Meg’s nephew, Eric, has a pet duck who follows him around like a dog. Eric is 8 in the first book, a gangly teen by the time “Penguin” has rolled around. In the first novel Meg meets Michael, filling in for the summer at his mother’s bridal shop – everyone in town, even Meg, thinks he’s gay, which of course isn’t true, one of the few plot turns I actually saw coming. In “Penguin” Meg and Michael are engaged, moving into a new house, and planning a very secret elopement.

Meg’s father, however, has messed up their moving plans by digging a penguin pond in Meg’s new basement, something that is further complicated when a dead body is found in the space meant for the pond. Meg, of course, is more than a little surprised to find penguins in her basement, but soon discovers that the local zookeeper has had to farm out some of his animals, and even worse, he seems to be missing. Meanwhile other animals keep turning up on her doorstep – it’s the llamas that had me laughing aloud – and Meg’s move in becomes too complicated for words.

This scenario would seem incredibly unlikely if I hadn’t also read Gerald Durrell’s delightful, and true, account of his arriving home in England, A Zoo in My Luggage, (with animals) to open his zoo, but having nowhere to put it, so the whole pack moves into his mother’s suburban basement. Andrews’ story isn’t, of course, true, but she writes about it so plausibly in her matter of fact and off handedly funny way that I would defy you not to be totally sucked into Meg’s world (and pleased as punch you don’t live in her house). To me this narrative was even more rocket powered than Andrews’ first, and most acclaimed, novel, though I enjoyed both of them immensely. There can be few things better than spending a few happy summer hours with Meg and her crazy family.