My thanks to ECW Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
Fifty-Four Pigs is the first in a series of mysteries by veterinarian and author, Dr Philipp Schott, a volume of whose nonfiction memoirs I had the chance to read and review some moths ago, and which I enjoyed very much. So of course, when I saw this book on NetGalley—a mystery with lots of animals and a veterinarian as detective, of course I had to request.
The series is set in New Selfoss, a small town in Manitoba with a mostly Icelandic-origin population, and this first book opens right in the midst of winter (when -10oC is described as an (almost) ‘balmy day’ …). Dr Peter Bannerman is a forty-year-old veterinarian, running a small practice in New Selfoss, where he sees both ‘pets’ and farm animals. He is married to Laura, who knits sweaters, scarves and such with Star Trek, Harry Potter, LOTR and other themes and designs, while Laura’s brother Kevin is in the local police. Peter is rather idiosyncratic—a tea aficionado (whose teas must be brewed with precise timings)—obsessed with facts and measurements (random will never suffice), and proceeding logically on everything; as described in the blurb, ‘an odd duck’. He is certainly intelligent, but has his limitations and sometimes can get in over his head. He (and also Laura) do like their Lord of the Rings for the family pets include—Pippin the dog (with an excellent nose, and who’s been in competitions), Merry the cat (a tortie), and Gandalf the goat!
In this mystery, Peter is on his way to see a cow with a cut in her leg, when he sees an explosion on his friend Tom’s pig farm. When he heads there, he finds the entire barn is destroyed, and with it all fifty-four pigs. But when Kevin and other police arrive, they find not fifty-four, but fifty-five remains, the last an unidentified human being. Peter, who has solved a few mysteries before, is tempted to investigate, not being too impressed with the intelligence of the local police, and this urge becomes stronger when they begin to suspect Tom, who has been Peter’s friend since high school. In carrying out his investigations, Peter relies not only on his logical thinking and reasoning but also on Pippin’s nose, for there is nothing better when something must be tracked down. But as Philipp begins to uncover some information and clues, he soon finds that he can’t investigate the case without putting himself (and his family) in danger. Alongside, we also get a look into Peter’s practice as he sees different patients every day and grapples with small and big problems.
This was quite an enjoyable read for me with a great sense of place, an interesting set of characters, a good mystery at its core, and a great background in Peter’s veterinary practice.
I loved the setting of this one—while the town itself, New Selfoss, is fictional, the broader place with Gimli in Manitoba which had Canada’s first Icelandic settlers is very much real. I had no idea that there was an Icelandic community in Canada, let alone that it was the largest outside of Iceland, so it was interesting to learn about the community and place. (I assume the LOTR connection with Gimli is coincidental, but nonetheless good fun). Since the mystery opens in winter, we also get an idea of the extreme temperatures in which people seem to live quite ‘normally’—Peter himself walks to work—much to my surprise (shock?–I’ve lived in a place where it snowed, so I can take some cold, but -25oC!!!), but on the other hand, one also gets to live in a place quite close to nature, and see aurora borealis!
The author has done a great job incorporating Peter’s veterinary practice with his investigative activities—this is done in a completely believable way, so it isn’t that Peter is leaving aside his practice to investigate or vice versa, but he manages to accommodate both comfortably. The details are clearly drawn from Dr Schott’s own experiences and interesting to read of in themselves (one point at least I did recognise from his memoirs). It was all the more so since Peter sees not only pets, but also farm animals.
Being a first-in-series, we also get some insights into and introduction of Peter and his family, the others working in his practice, as also some of the residents (human and animal) in New Selfoss, whom we will see more of in subsequent books. I liked that Peter comes across as a realistic character—he is intelligent certainly, and perhaps more so than the Police as he likes to believe, but not infallible either, which means he needs the police as well. Also, his idiosyncrasies can certainly rub people the wrong way, including poor Kevin. One has also got to love Pippin, the dog, who certainly has a marvellous nose but even without it would be a jolly dog to have.
The mystery itself was also enjoyable; it is a slow-paced one, the kind where one follows Peter as he gathers clues and comes across information from different sources, and tries to form a picture alongside, but not I guess the kind we could work out in advance; the solution eventually fully became clear only at the end, and some parts do certainly shock Peter himself. I don’t know if I’d classify it as a cosy since there was a bit of gore, and the opening with the fifty-four pigs having to die was pretty upsetting.
But I enjoyed this one very much, and the title of the next book, Six Ostriches, and small excerpt at the end have certainly left me anticipating it.