BOOK REVIEW: Whiskers in the Dark

Whiskers in the Dark: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown (Talking Animals/Cozy Mystery, 2019).

Rita Mae Brown and her feline companion/co-author have offered up another multi-era cozy featuring Mrs. Murphy, the wise crime-solving cat, her various non-human sidekicks and the assorted clueless humans they routinely assist. In this charming series, all manner of animals can and do talk to one another (not to mention the readers) and only their humans are unable to understand their sounds and gestures. Thus these books are whimsical fantasy. Additionally, the action switches back and forth between a modern Virginia, where a voice-of-reason tabby (Mrs. Murphy), a self-involved cat named Pewter and two well-meaning and enthusiastic dogs (Tee Tucker and Pirate) share a life with Mary “Harry” Harristeen and her husband, and the same rural Blue Ridge mountain area in the 1780s.

This being a cozy, Harry and her lifelong friend Susan are forever stumbling across suspicious deaths that need solving. That’s the crime-side of the series. But while marketed as a mystery, the matter of whodunit is very much secondary to the interplay of humans and not-at-all-dumb animals, scenes of rural hunting lore and, oh yes, how the early days of the United States still influences the region today.

This time out, an outfit called the National Beagle Club is holding a fundraising tournament of Beagle and Bassett hound rabbit hunting teams to raise money for needy military veterans. Harry and Susan are more into fox hunting (see previous books in the series), but are game to help out for charity. Harry’s companion animals, of course, scheme to be involved and come along to help.

Also of course, one of the huntsmen ends up dead on the grounds in mid-tournament, his throat slashed, ear-to-ear. Later, a second mysterious death mars the end of the event.

The fantasy element is reinforced by our non-human heroes’ encounter with a ghost dog who’s out for justice for his previously murdered owner. That makes three corpses, all related, that need solved. Yes, with the animals’ unrecognized support, Harry will puzzle out the truth–which involves military secrets, spying activity and purely personal revenge (or crude justice, depending on your viewpoint).

Meanwhile, the ongoing saga of the locals’ ancestors continues. In Harry’s era, the secret burial of a black woman from the late 18th century, improbably wearing a fortune in pearls, has recently been uncovered and is attracting all kinds of questions. Chapters flashing back to a somewhat idealized slave-holding time confirms the unknown woman’s identity and details her fate for readers, though it remains a mystery for the modern characters. Stay tuned for what future books may or may not uncover.

This ongoing series is a one-of-a-kind blend of playful fantasy, history and cozy crime fiction. A beguilingly offbeat set of interconnected novels, though each one hangs together well enough on its own.

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