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Historical Mysteries

Stalking Ivory, Suzanne Arruda, Obsidian, $14.00.

Suzanne Arruda's books beg to be read with a soundtrack. Not a musical one, but the sounds of the jungle, that Arruda, a former zookeeper, beautifully describes in her novels. Years ago I was on a board with a woman from South Africa; she said children in Africa are trained to recognize the difference between a leopard's cry and a lion's. I never quite believed her (she had a tendency to exaggerate) but I do now. And indeed, the animal inhabitants of Arruda's books are as meaningful as the human ones; this book, about elephant poaching, is especially heart rending. The opening scene sets up the book: Jade del Cameron is a wildlife photographer on the hunt for elephants. She's in a hunting blind rigging a camera to catch the elephants and the jungle at night when all the animals are on the move. What she and her friends Avery and Bev find on the way back to camp - a group of slaughtered elephants, minus their tusks - propels the action in the rest of the novel. It's effective as it makes you care about what happens as much as you would be invested in any human victim - since the victims are animals it's almost as bad as the murder of a child because the victims, while not defenseless, were certainly innocent.

The complications of the rest of the novel involve a fellow safari guide, Harry Hascombe, who is guiding a group of Germans (especially sensitive as this is set in 1920, soon after WWI); a pilot and movie maker named Sam Featherstone, who, like Harry, is somewhat besotted by Jade; and Jelani, the young African boy who works for Jade, primarily keeping an eye on the pet cheetah who used to belong to Harry but who, like everyone else in the story, is besotted with the beautiful, brave, and sometimes foolhardy Jade. Jade is certainly the driving force of nature in the story, but a close second is the African landscape that Arruda writes about with real vividness. Complicating matters further is a cache of guns and money found by Jade and her headman, Chiumbu; they take it upon themselves to discover who has stored them as they are sure the same people are behind the elephant poaching.

While there are some deaths in the book along with those of the elephants, Arruda is primarily writing an adventure story; with her love of nature and animals, she's similar to Nevada Barr in her ability to make a landscape come alive. Jade's complicated love life and family and personal history make her a character worth following - literally to the ends of the earth.

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