Mystery author # 43: Rita Mae Brown

Here is series that may or may nor have been inspired by Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series: the Mrs. Murphy books. The similarities are several: the cosy small town setting, the close-knit community full of colourful characters, and a smart cat that helps its owner solve mysteries. But this is not to say that this is clone of the Cat who… series, not at all. To start with, the reader is actually allowed to see into the mind of the animal characters, who have conversations that are often more sensible than those of the humans around them, thus firmly anthropomorphising them for the readers. The most obvious difference is that the sleuths are female and by no means rich like Braun’s Qwill. Additionally, the cats appear to be moggies rather than purebreeds, and several other species of animals are involved in the solving and resolution of the mysteries.

Series detective: Mary Minor Haristeen (“Harry”) and Mrs. Murphy, a tabby cat
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur, animal
Setting & time: Crozet, Virginia, USA; modern timeless

Title 1: Rest in Pieces
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1992

It is autumn in Virginia and farmer and postmistress “Harry” Haristeen has a handsome new neighbour, a rich fashion model from New York who has bought the neighbouring farm. When Harry’s corgi, Tucker, finds severed body parts in the private graveyard by the newcomer’s farm, and more body parts begin to be found around the county, suspicion at first falls on the new guy, but when another body is discovered it begins to appear that a local resident is involved, and Harry, Mrs. Murphy, and Tucker wonder who the killer could be. A series of events leads him to reveal himself in a dramatic manner, but he doesn’t count on the smart cat and feisty corgi…

From here onward you may find SPOILERS

There is rather a nice little twist near the end of this tale, and there are enough clues to keep a traditionalist mystery reader happy, but not enough to give away the story right away. So far so good, but there is hardly any investigation, just a series of coincidences that lead Harry, the neighbour and a third person into the path of the killer, and a scene where the animals come to their rescue in a manner worthy of one of the dreadful modern Dr. Dolittle movies.

Rating: A sometimes funny and continually enjoyable little mystery, but not much sleuthing going on. 2+ stars.

Title 2: Catch as Cat Can
No. in series: 10
Year of publication: 2002

Story: When 2 locals and a stranger are murdered in Crozet in a matter of days, it sets the town abuzz. Harry is no exception, and this time she takes an active hand in investigating the case, along with her 2 cats and corgi dog and a group of her friends. In co-operation with the police the killers are caught.

This novel, unlike Rest in Pieces, is a real sleuth story. Harry actively investigates the crimes throughout the story, prodded and sometimes helped by her pets, especially Mrs. Murphy. But some of the clues are clumsy and vague and the identity of one of the criminals is unconvincing and seems like it was decided on as the rather clumsy lead-up to the climactic scene was being written. A clue crucial to the understanding of that particular criminal’s identity is written in such a way that it can only be understood as a clue if you read it as observations by Mrs. Murphy, but as it is written in the third person omniscient style it is impossible to know that until afterwards, which breaks the rule of having the reader on an even footing with the sleuths.

Rating: An entertaining and past-paced funny mystery with some unfortunate fatal weaknesses. 2+ stars.

Overall rating:
These entertaining books are recommended for 2 types of mystery fans: cat lovers and those who like fantasy. The writing is firmly in the cosy tradition, except for some rather gruesome but fortunately brief descriptions of corpses, which jar with the cosy atmosphere and give the stories a slightly gothic flavour. It is mostly the characters and their relationships that really make the stories interesting, along with some beautifully rendered descriptions of nature and the seasons, and of course the conversations, relationships and antics of the animals.

Brown is rather fond of using the expression “richer/older than God”, which is only amusing the first time you read it and does not bear repeating in the same book, especially not when applied to the same character as it is in Rest in Pieces. Fortunately it is only used once (that I noticed) in Catch as Cat Can, to good effect.

All in all, I liked the books in spite of their flaws, and will read more when and if I come across them.

I am not making good progress with The Canterbury Tales. The book is so big and stiff and unwieldy (not to mention heavy) that it is painful for my hands and wrists to hold it open for more than 10 minutes at a time, plus it just takes longer to read Middle English than the modern version when you’re not used to it.
It may therefore take me another month to finish it.


hey, i love your blog. What do u think in writing in my blog : ??
Bibliophile said…
Well, it would help if it wasn't written in Portugese...

Linking to the Babelfish translation machine was a good idea, but have you looked at the English translation? Urg!

Seriously, I like the look of your blog.

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