The Tell-Tale Horse by Rita Mae Brown (novel, 2007).
The last couple books I’ve reviewed have been serious, thoughtful and moving personal memoirs. As a change of pace, today I consider an entertaining murder mystery–the sixth of a series having to do with the world of fox hunters that Rita Mae Brown has been writing for quite a while now.
Some years ago, I read and enjoyed a number of playful murder mysteries she wrote , allegedly co-authored by her house cat, Sneaky Pie Brown. As with those books, the nonhuman characters in THE TELL-TALE HORSE (hounds, horses, foxes and birds) share their thoughts on the events around them–and often seem a good deal more clear-headed than us conflicted, passion-blinded humans. But in this book (and others in the series, I suspect) the primary focus is on Jane Arnold (nicknamed ‘Sister’ by her friends).
Like Rita Mae Brown in real life, Arnold is also heads up a fox hunting club. Accordingly, she also has the title of “Master of Fox Hounds” and is politely referred to as “Master” by most others. She’s an aging but vigorous woman and a character the reader can spend lots of enjoyable time around–an ideal protagonist/amateur detective.
As for myself, I knew next to nothing about the fox hunting–and suspected the sport was cruel to the animals being chased around. Brown’s treatment of the thing puts a friendly gloss on the thing, as the foxes (while maybe not loving the idea of being frequently pursued) treat it matter-of-factly and are never greatly harmed.
Brown of course has the terminology of the unusual sub-culture of those obsessed with fox hunting down pat and employs it well–so I, as an outsider to this situation, was grateful for the list of “useful terms” that precede the actual novel. Jumping into the middle of an ongoing series is always problematical, especially one with a good number of established characters–so the mini-bios Brown provides of those involved (human and otherwise) were also welcome.
The pacing of the book overall is good, introducing key characters and the world they inhabit. It’s all very pleasant–but not too much so–then the first of what eventually becomes a string of grotesque, ritualized murders pops up and a reluctant ‘Sister Jane’ finds herself drawn into a bewildering and dangerous mystery.
I wrote above that the pacing ‘overall’ was good–and it is. But as I read along (enjoying the book, make no mistake) and found myself nearing the end, I did become concerned how Brown would bring it the central mystery to a satisfactory end in the relative few remaining pages. I won’t give away the resolution, though be assured it was suitable and convincing–and violent. But I did find feel the climactic events did unfold just the least bit abruptly, compared to the first 250 or so pages of the novel. It certainly did NOT ruin the book for me and I’m sure most readers wouldn’t have any trouble with it.
Another point: Although the cover art (seen above) is nice enough, be aware that the story itself (intelligent animals notwithstanding) isn’t quite as whimsical as the cover indicates.
Overall, this was a good and enjoyable read, introducing me to a setting that was quite fresh and new to me. I liked the frequent wry humor and the varied, interesting characters–and lesser sub-plots that either resolved nicely or were left available to add spice to the (Inevitable) next volume in the series.