Probable Claws, by Rita Mae Brown

By Tommy Brannon, MFH

Since meeting Rita Mae Brown in person, more than once, and having had at-length conversations with her about foxhunting, I have become a fan of her books – usually the ones about foxhunting. I recently picked up her latest book at Novel Book Store in Memphis, this one a “Mrs. Murphy mystery,” co-authored by the cat Sneaky Pie Brown, which is titled (pun intended, I’m sure) Probable Claws (© 2018). Since we have inadvertently accumulated a herd of cats at our farm, I have formed a strong bond with the male “granddaddy” of several and can definitely identify with the feline set, although I have not yet mastered the cat language. Despite all the different things they tell me, I still only understand “meow,” or “mew” in the case of the younger set.

In her 26th Mrs. Murphy mystery,Brown and her feline co-author Sneaky Pie Brown return to Albemarle County, Virginia, with a plot that converges parallel mysteries from the past and the present.

With the New Year just around the corner, winter has transformed the cozy Blue Ridge Mountain community of Crozet, Virginia into a living snow globe. It’s the perfect setting for Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen to build a new work shed designed by her dear friend, local architect Gary Gardner.  But the natural serenity is shattered when out of the blue, right in front of Harry and Deputy Cynthia Cooper, and in broad daylight, Gary is shot to death by a black-clad figure on a speeding Ducati motorcycle.

Outraged by the brazen murder, Harry begins to burrow into her friend’s past—and unearths a pattern of destructive greed reaching far back into Virginia’s post-Revolutionary history (I love history!). An old book of building codes disappears from Gary’s office, so Harry suspects that the missing book may hold the key to his murder. Just when Harry finds incriminating evidence, the killer strikes again. Gary’s friend Lisa Roundabush, the highly intelligent and competent head of the Nature First environmental group, is poisoned.  The second murder seems unrelated to Gary’s, except that both victims were interested in dinosaurs.

Heedless of her own safety, Harry follows a trail of clues to a construction site in Richmond, where the discovery of mysterious remains has recently halted work. In a doppelganger universe, a parallel plot set in 1787 in the same county in Virginia reveals plantation owner Ewing Garth and his family, managing horses and slaves, and wondering what kind of government is being created at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The book chapters switch back and forth between 1787 and 2017.

Aided by her loyal, opinionated companions – the crime-solving cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, along with Tee Tucker the Corgi – Harry hunts for a link between the decades-old dead, the recently violently murdered, and the ancient secrets that underlie everything. The modern-day mystery is connected to the 18th century story by a bone. And while other deaths are narrowly averted in a flurry of fur, the killer remains at large—ever more desperate and dangerous. The deep-rooted legacy of corruption that’s been exposed can never be buried again. But if Harry keeps pursuing the terrible truth, she may be digging her own grave.

Rita Mae Brown’s style is to begin with a description of each character in the book, both human and animal, and in this case, in both centuries. She also describes the locations – two different plantations plus Richmond – in each of the centuries. As there are so many characters in this book, this is a helpful reference. Mrs. Murphy and her friends all talk to each other, but the humans cannot understand them. The animals all have distinctive personalities and phobias.

The book combines intuitive and curious animals, a mystery to be solved, and a good dose of Virginia history. (There’s nothing better than an ample dose of history!). The 18th century thread woven into the fabric of the story begins in one of the author’s previous books, A Hiss Before Dying (© 2017) and according to the her post script will continue in her next Sneaky Pie mystery. There is also a contrasting writing style between the chapters set in the two different centuries. The 1787 chapters are written in the fluid prose and vocabulary common to that time, and the modern writing is in the much faster pace of today’s speech.

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