“A rich, atmospheric murder mystery . . . rife with love, scandal . . . redemption, greed and nobility,” raved the San Jose Mercury News about Outfoxed, Rita Mae Brown’s first foxhunting masterpiece. In The Hunt Ball, the latest novel in this popular series, all the ingredients Brown’s readers love are abundantly present: richness of character and landscape, the thrill of the hunt, and the chill of violence.
The trouble begins at Custis Hall, an exclusive girls’ school in Virginia that has gloried in its good name for nearly two hundred years. At first, the outcry is a mere tempest in a silver teapot–a small group of students protesting the school’s exhibit of antique household objects crafted by slaves–and headmistress Charlotte Norton quells the ruckus easily. But when one of the two hanging corpses ornamenting the students’ Halloween dance turns out to be real–the body of the school’s talented fund-raiser, in fact–Charlotte and the entire community are stunned. Everyone liked Al Perez, or so it seemed, yet his murder was particularly unpleasant.
Even “Sister” Jane Arnold, master of the Jefferson Hunt Club, beloved by man and beast, is at a loss, although she knows better than anyone where the bodies are buried in this community of land-grant families and new-money settlers. Aided and abetted by foxes and owls, cats and hounds, Sister picks up a scent that leads her in a most unwelcome direction: straight to the heart of the foxhunting crowd. The chase is on, not only for foxes but also for a deadly human predator.
No one has created a fictional paradise more delightful than the rolling hills of Rita Mae Brown’s Virginia countryside, or has more charmingly captured the rituals of the hunt. No one understands human and animal nature more deeply. The Hunt Ball combines a rounded, welcoming world with an edge of unforgettable white-knuckled menace.
The most appealing characters in Brown's underplotted new mystery are the animals, even without Sneaky Pie's coauthorship. Septuagenarian "Sister" Jane Arnold, the Master of the central Virginia Jefferson Hunt Club, returns from Brown hunt titles like Outfoxed to solve the murder of a local prep school teacher. Not a snob when it comes to class or looks, Sister is a tremendous snob regarding hunt etiquette and respect for animals. And in Brown's fictive world, every fox, hound, horse, dog and bird is given a name, personality, backstory and dialogue. All can converse with each other and understand the humans while Sister has the ability to sense what the animals are thinking. The hunt scenes are luminous; the plot is obligatory, if premised on politically inspiring grounds. When a group of students stages a demonstration focused on the unacknowledged role of slaves in the prep school's history, and a beloved staff member is found murdered, things get tense at Custis Hall. But the impending annual hunt ball (scene, of course, of the eventual denouement) provides ample distraction. No foxes were harmed in the writing of this book. (On sale Aug. 30)
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The Hunt Continues
This is likely the most entertaining of the series of mysteries focussing on the world of the fox hunts. Warning, though, there are scenes that will cause laughter which may be distracting on a flight or in a library. If you are familiar with Virginia, or fox hunting, horses, girl's school, Virginia gentry, or particularly the scenting behaviors or dogs and or foxes with a mystery thrown in, this is the book for you.