A small time private investigator agrees to find a missing person but finds herself dragged into a serial murder case instead. Zinzi December lives in Johannesburg, in the neighborhood known as Zoo City. She is recovering addict who is trying to pay off a large debt to her old drug dealer.
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In the world of the book a strange plague in the 1980s lead to the rise of a phenomenon known as ‘animalling'. Anyone who is guilty of a grave crime suddenly finds themselves partnered with an animal familiar and possessed of some strange talent.
The animals are connected somehow to their owners, who suffer pain and weakness if separated from the animal. Worse, if the animal dies the owner is literally dragged into the abyss by a dark cloud known as the undertow.
In between the chapters that tell Zinzi's story we get background on the animal plague and on the it has had on society, culture, and the criminal justice system.
Zinzi's animal is a sloth and her ability is finding lost objects. She is eeking out an existence writing 419 scam emails and dating her boyfriend Benoit who works as a security guard and has an animal of his own, a mongoose.
Zinzi is on a job finding something for a client when the client is murdered, leaving her without the money from the case and as the prime suspect by the police. Outside of the crime scene she is approached by two strangers calling themselves Marabou & Maltese, after their animals, who try to hire her to find a missing person. ZInzi refuses, saying she doesn't do people since they are too complicated and painful.
Benoit, who is a refuge from a war zone, finds out that his wife and child whom he thought dead are still alive. He tells Zinzi he is going to have to figure out how to go find them, she is not thrilled by these revelations but continues seeing him while he is sorting this out.
With the money from her last job gone Zinzi calls Marabou and Maltese and tells then she will meet with their client about his missing person. The client turns out to be Odi Huron, a famously reclusive music producer who had a string of hits, disappeared for a while, and has recently made a comeback with a pop duo called IJusi composed of twin brother and sister S'bu and Songweza.
Songweza, known as Song, has been missing for several days and Odi doesn't know if she has been taken or left of her own, but here's a record launch coming up in three weeks and Huron wants to avoid a scandal so he can't call the police.
Zinzi agrees to take the case and starts by talking to Song's brother S'bu, who claims to have no idea where she is or why. Zinzi learns about the kids; they were part of a talent contest and launched to fame after their parents both died. She talks to their young friends and finds out that Song might have been dating someone.
Zinzi contacts her old magazine connections to dig further, pretending its for a comeback piece and that she's getting back into the business. Her old boyfriend who works for the magazine is delighted and helps her out.
Zinzi goes to a rehab clinic Song stayed at and finds out more about the boyfriend plus some other leads.
Gio discovers she is not writing a story after all and expresses frustration but asks her to write one anyway and he'll publish it.
While investigating a lead Zinzi gets mugged by a gang that threaten to kill her and take her sloth to use in a from of magic called 'muti', they claim to have done so with other animals and she barely escapes from them.
The information she got at the rehab clinic lead her to a bouncer named Ronaldo that helped Song i n the past. She gets his address and finds Son hiding in the same apartment building. Song claims to be fine and just wants to be left alone, she swears that someone is out to kill her. Before Zinzi can hear much more Marabu and Maltese show up and drag Song off explaining that she stopped taking her medication when she left and is unbalanced.
Uncertain Zinzi looks into the case further, visiting Song again and finding her heavily medicated. She notices a pattern of people close to Song having gone missing including Ronaldo.
She gets her money for finding Song and pays her drug dealer off. Impulsively she also emails back all the current scams she has going telling them it's a con.
She starts seeing the connections between her case and some other missing people and murders, plus some strange fractured emails she has been receiving. She looks into it further and discovers that at least some of the victims were animalled, but the animals are missing. She realizes the point of the murders was the animals, not the people.
She comes home one night to find her drug dealer there, the money she used to pay him was counterfeit. She also finds a knife that she doesn't recognize sitting on her counter, then she hears sirens outside and she realizes she is being set up. She tells the drug dealer who agrees they should go their separate ways, though her debt to him is not tripled.
As she flees she receives a panicked call from one of Song's friends saying they're coming for him. She gets Benoit to pick her up and use his guard uniform to help her sneak into Odi's place. She finds Maltese there waiting and he admits she has been set up for all of the animalled murders and a couple of others that are about to take place.
ZInzi sees something in Odi's big outdoor pool and realizes it is his animal, an albino crocodile. Odi disappeared for those years because he had killed someone and he has been hiding this fact ever since.
Maltese and Benoit struggle and Benoit falls in the water, Zinzi dives after him and manages to rescue him from the crocodile who has grabbed and dragged him down through a tunnel that leads to an underground grotto. She drags Benoit to shore and sees that Odi and Marabou are there with the twins, who are drugged and handcuffed. She also see's several animals that she recognizes from earlier victims.
Zinzi is hidden behind some rocks and witnesses what she realizes is a magic ritual. Marabou and Odi discuss the power of twins, and then they kill the animals, performing some sort of binding spell as they do. Done, they unshackle the twins giving them each a knife. Odi tells them its like a harmless videogame and they should fight each other. In a drug haze S'bu does so, killing Song.
The undertow comes and Odi forces S'bu to declare that he accepts the crocodile as his own animal. In this way it's ownership is transferred from Odi to the boy, leaving Odi free for the first time in twenty years. Satisfied he tells Marabou to kill S'bu.
After they leave Zinzi takes a risk and approaches the crocodile. She tells it that they will kill it and use it's parts for magic. The animal seems to understand and swims up to the surface again, where it manages to grab and kill Odi.
They can hear sirens outside and Marabou and Maltese flee the scene, Zinzi following soon after.
The book ends with Zinzi driving out of the city with her sloth and the bag of counterfeit money. The police are still after her, but she has decided for once to do something good and unselfish, she has a photo of Benoit's family and will use her ability to track them down for him.
Best part of story, including ending:
The concept of the animals and abilities that come with them is very cool, and a lot of the background details the author adds are interesting (a rapper pretending to have an animal to appear cooler, how prisons cope with animalled inmates, etc) though the actual murder mystery gets a little confusing and convoluted at the end.
Best scene in story:
The first time we see the undertow, when Zinzi watches a guy on her street get taken after a fight in which his animal is killed, that's really spooky.
Opinion about the main character:
Zinzi is selfish and very negative, so its a bit hard to enjoy seeing the world through her eyes.