- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007

I like to think I’ve read most of the books written by the writers I like, and since Rita Mae Brown is definitely a writer I like, I like to think I’ve read most of her books. Not even close. If pressed for a guess, I’d have said she’d written 10, maybe 15, tops. Again, not even close. “The Hounds and the Fury” is Brown’s 35th book, the fifth featuring “Sister” Jane Arnold and foxhunting; there are 13 volumes in another series featuring Sneaky Pie Brown (her detecting cat). The 17 others include the famous early book “Rubyfruit Jungle” and the one bearing my favorite Brown title, “Venus Envy.”

I don’t know when the woman found time to go foxhunting, but a-hunting she definitely went, and I for one am grateful. That familiarity lets her paint a fascinating backdrop for a different kind of hunt. “The Hounds and the Fury” is a good read about a good ride.

The Virginia horse country — think Middleburg, Blue Ridge Mountains, Inn at Little Washington, etc. — provides the setting. A lovely one it is, a charming little town surrounded mostly by grand estates known as hunt farms, as well as a few smaller and equally charming properties. The latter are all that’s left of the once-grand holdings of proud but almost impoverished families.

The cast of characters represents all the social divisions one associates with Virginia, including FFV types, nouveau riche, trades people and a good old boy or two, plus some young ladies from an exclusive girls school. The old class distinctions have by no means disappeared, except when the huntsman blows the horn and they’re all off in pursuit of the fox. Then, the only thing that counts is how well you can ride and the respect you show the traditions of the centuries-old sport.

As Ms. Brown says, “The great thing about hunting is that someone worth a billion dollars — yes, one billion — might be riding next to someone who makes twenty-three thousand dollars a year. Foxhunters cut across ethnic and class lines, all professions, all ages. There are a few people hunting today in their nineties and to hunt in your seventies is nothing. In fact, age is another thing no one notices. Either you can stick on your horse or you can’t.”

Interestingly, after the author goes to great lengths to establish the setting and assemble the large cast of characters, she seems far less interested in the plot, all but forgetting it for chapter after chapter. Here’s the deal: The local aluminum plant has been the victim of embezzlement to the tune of a million dollars. When Garvey Stokes, the company president, asks his unpleasant little assistant “Iffy” Demetrios what’s up, she’s too busy fighting her lung cancer to be of much help.

Iffy, one of the only main characters who doesn’t ride, is also too busy singing the praises of her oncologist, the handsome Dr. Jason Woods, who does, and quite well for someone not to the saddle born. Even when someone gets murdered — with nary a hound barking in the night — it hardly throws the author off the scent for long. She’s far more interested in telling us about foxhunting (we don’t kill ‘em in this country, unlike in England), and, again, I’m grateful because it’s so interesting and Ms. Brown tells it all so well, with the same style and grace apparent in the jacket photo of her in her handsome livery.

Also, many of the characters are, as they say Over There, spot on, especially “Sister” Jane Arnold, your basic superhero, Virginia hunt country style. I’d have to guess Sister is the woman Ms. Brown wants to be at 70 — strong, smart, beautiful and the best master of foxhounds in all of Virginia. Sister stands for all that is good and pure and decent in both foxhunting and life, and (when the author gets her around to it) she’s as capable of solving a murder as she is of decking an out-of-line man with her own good right hand. Sister may be 73, but you can be sure she won’t be joining Captain America on the obit page anytime soon.

The rest of cast isn’t quite as interesting, in part because there are so many of them — so very many that the author felt compelled to provide a seven-page cast of characters that includes 21 humans, five main hounds, 12 horses, eight foxes and three birds, almost all of which have speaking parts. Normally, such cuteness would send me up the wall within a few pages, but Ms. Brown pulls it off with her usual lan. It also helps that she is a funny writer, albeit a frequently irreverent one. For example, decrying the spectacle of the Christmas holidays, she writes, “Christmas culminated in such a frenzy that Sister often wished that Joseph and Mary had been sterile. Sister found Boxing Day one of the happiest days of the year.”

While Sister Jane Arnold does eventually get around to solving the mystery and catching the killer, that seems almost an aside to the author’s main goal, to teach readers that foxhunting is indeed a thrilling and entirely egalitarian sport while entertaining those already its partisans.

She even goes so far as to tack (pun intended) on a glossary of foxhunting terms, such as “Lark” (“To jump fences unnecessarily when hounds aren’t running. Masters frown on this, since it is often an invitation to an accident.”) or “Hoick” (“The huntsman’s cheer to the hounds. It is derived from the Latin hic haec hoc , which means ‘here.’”), or one of the few known to most Americans, “Tally-ho” (“The cheer when the fox is viewed. Derived from the Norman ty a hillaut, thus coming into the English language in 1066.”).

All in all, a most enjoyable book, no matter how well, or badly, you stick on your horse.

John Greenya is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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