The hunt is on in this new installment of Rita Mae Brown's clever and engaging series. Only instead of chasing foxes into their dens, the locals must track down a killer and save the life of one of the most beloved folks in town.
It's February, prime foxhunting season for the members of Virginia's Jefferson Hunt Club. The girls at Custis Hall are finishing their last semester before heading off to college, the entrepreneurially shrewd Crawford Howard is still smarting from January's breech in hound etiquette, and the Casanova Hunt Club is hosting their annual ball. New neighbors bring new friendships, and romance is in the air.
Then a shocking event alarms the community. A woman is found brutally murdered, stripped naked, and meticulously placed atop a horse statue outside a tack shop. The theft of a treasured foxhunting prize inside the store may be linked to the grisly scene, and everyone is on edge.
With few clues to go on, "Sister" Jane Arnold, master of the Jefferson Hunt Club, uses her fine-tuned horse sense to try to solve the mystery of this "Lady Godiva" murder. The septuagenarian still has a strong spring in her step and her wits about her, but that may not be enough. As Sister gets closer to the truth, she could become the killer's next victim.
But humans aren't the only ones equipped to sniff out the trail. The local foxes, horses, and hounds have their own theories on the whodunit. If only these peculiar people could just listen to them, they'd see that the killer might be right under their oblivious noses.
Once again, this charming southern community finds itself caught up in a bone-chilling tale of murder and greed. It's up to everyone, two- and four-legged alike, to band together, beat the bushes, and bring to bay the evil forces that have declared the Jefferson Hunt Club fair game-because foul play is never in season.
Enlivened by a large cast of familiar two- and four-legged characters, Sister Jane Arnold's sixth adventure in Virginia hunt country (after 2006's The Hounds and the Fury) opens with the discovery of a nude female corpse tied to an equine shop fixture. The Jefferson Hunt community is appropriately distressed, but master of foxhounds Sister really gets outraged when a valuable trophy goes missing and then turns up in her stable. Suspects abound among the well-heeled and well-mounted but rather undeveloped members of the hunt. Brown's well-researched descriptions of hunting will please aficionados who don't mind her talking-animal conceit, but otherwise the prose is undistinguished; the useful terms section at the back is almost superfluous, though the exhaustive dramatis personae in the front is not. The tale is mostly carried by its unusual setting and a rather cozy plot featuring high-tech and financial wizardry. Author tour. (Oct.)
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September 24, 2007
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Excerpt from The Tell-Tale Horse by Rita Mae Brown
Dots of brightness sparkled in the night from electric fairy lights shaped like tiny candles on the denuded dogwoods lining the driveway. Slashes of yellow light spilled onto deep snow from the high windows in the ballroom. The brick Georgian building had settled into the landscape over the years, so that people viewing this scene from outside might have thought themselves in the eighteenth century. The faint music would have put an end to that reverie. No Mozart, but everything else a hunt ball could wish. The swirl of elegant people inside added to the beauty of the scene. It was Saturday night, February 16, and the Casanova Hunt Ball was in full swing. Only stars and tiny glittering lights offered relief from the blackness of a new moon, and it was bitterly cold. Perhaps that, too, fed the frenetic energy inside, for the moon always pulls on humans whether visible or not.
Jane "Sister" Arnold, Master of Foxhounds of the Jefferson Hunt, her escort, Gray Lorillard, and a large contingent of Jefferson members had come to the Casanova Hunt Ball. The two clubs enjoyed warm relations as well as a touch of competitiveness. The Jefferson Hunt members, whose own ball had been marred by a drunken scuffle and torn bodices, relaxed here. Surely nothing so tacky could happen at Casanova.
Seated at the master's table were Bill and Joyce Fendley, joint masters of Casanova; their daughter, Jeanne Clark, now also a joint master; and her husband, John. Sister and Gray, Marion Maggiolo, and the entire Bancroft clan filled out the rest. Every table on the ballroom floor hosted at least one couple from JHC. Libations flowed, the dance floor was jammed, and Sister danced every dance as the gentlemen in attendance lined up to squire the master. Being Virginians, they performed this duty without thinking about it. No lady should ever sit out a dance unless she chooses to do so. Age, looks, and bloodline certainly improve a lady's chances of further engagements, but all belles have to be treated as great beauties. It's the custom.
In Sister's case, the gentlemen truly enjoyed dancing with her. Seventy-three, a trim six feet, with shining silver hair and buoyant spirits, she had the gift of making a man feel like a man and she was a wonderful dancer.
Joyce Fendley, passing her on the floor, called over her partner's shoulder, "Don't you ever wear out?"
Sister laughed. "If I did, I wouldn't tell you."
As the music ended, High Vajay, head of the Vajay family and a stalwart of the Jefferson Hunt, held out his gloved hand for Sister. His family called him Lakshmi, but the Virginians, fearful of murdering his given name, had nicknamed him High. It suited him, for he was tall and reed-thin, with salt-and-pepper hair, a handsome man who reveled in the high life. His wife, Madhur, now Mandy, had been Miss Cosmos in 1990; at thirty-nine, her stunning beauty had only intensified with age. Their children, eight and ten years old, were tucked in bed at home, two hours southwest of Fauquier County, where everyone was gathered.
"Master, you move like a panther," High purred.
"Means I have claws." She smiled up at him, a pleasure for her since she often looked a bit down at a fellow.
"I've seen them." He held her tighter.
He had, too; there were moments in the hunt field when she had to wield her power, lest a hound, horse, or human be endangered, usually in that order.
After their waltz, High walked Sister back to her table, where she and Gray sat down at the same moment. The band took a break.
"What a party." Gray grinned, his military mustache calling attention to his white teeth.
"Anytime I'm with you, darling, it's a celebration."
He kissed her on the cheek. For a year and a half they'd been keeping company, as Sister's generation politely called it. They drew closer each day, but neither one was prepared to say I love you.
But they did love each other. In fact, many of the people in this room loved each other, but they may not have recognized the feeling. Americans focus on romantic love, particularly the pursuit stage, glossing over the sustaining bonds of friendship, a condition Sister often thought of as love made bearable. She enjoyed the members of her club and loved a few with all her heart. There were Tedi and Edward Bancroft, friends for most of her life. She loved Betty Franklin, her first whipper-in, a prized position and sometimes a dangerous one. Betty Franklin, in her forties, stood talking to a group of people while Bobby, her husband, returned from the bar with her tonic water and lime.