Fans of Rita Mae Brown's Outfoxed, will welcome the return of Jane "Sister" Arnold, Master of the fictional Jefferson Hunt Club in central Virginia. Sister is in her 70s, but more than equal to any woman in the county - and most men - both physically and mentally. And she is an example of one of Brown's strongest skills - the development of unforgettable characters. Readers have admired, sympathized, and/or identified with her characters since RMB burst on the 1960s scene with the strident Rubyfruit Jungle, followed by the funny and moving Six of One (in which two of her characters are horsewomen), and more than 40 other novels, poetry collections and screenplays.
These days horse people are characters in most of Brown's novels and dominate her Mrs. Murphy mystery series, a collaboration with her precocious tiger cat, Sneaky Pie.
Like "Sister," Brown is a master of foxhounds. She leads the Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club near Charlottesville, Virginia, and is a member of the Farmington Hunt Club and the Middleburg Hounds (both in Virginia). Locals will recognize familiar landmarks and perhaps think they see themselves (or others) in RMB's novels. The speculation is delicious but, unless mentioned by name, all of Brown's characters are conglomerates of people she has met in her well-traveled lifetime -- or figments of her fertile and savvy imagination. Fictional or not, they resemble people most of us have encountered in the hunt world.
In Hotspur, Sister - and the members of her hunt -- are confronted with a 21-year-old mystery that reopens terrible wounds for two families and sets a tight community abuzz with renewed suspicion and uneasiness. It becomes clear that a murderer is in their ranks - and that the murderer is likely to be very nervous that he or she is about to be discovered.
The remains of Nola Bancroft, who disappeared without a trace, are found by accident. Most folks had settled on the theory that Nola had eloped with the handsome Guy Ramey, but neither the Bancrofts or Ramey's widowed mother could reconcile the fact that their children had remained silent for more than two decades. Sister hadn't bought it either, and the discovery of Nola's body proved all of their instincts to be true.
The truth, though, is a murky entity. Nola had been beautiful and a bit of a tease, and there were few men in the hunt who could keep their eyes off her. More than one had been close enough to her to develop jealousies. But who felt strongly enough to kill her - and what happened to Guy? As the book progresses, all sorts of clues and emotions leak out and create turmoil among the characters who have not met an early demise.
Non-foxhunting readers may feel that RMB pays too much attention to matters of the hunt - the dress, history and rituals that are all part of riding hell-bent through the countryside - but horse people and foxhunters won't mind a bit. Brown's message on foxhunting, without being preachy, is that the sport is a lively pursuit that ends not in a kill but in hounds and humans being outfoxed. Everyone wants the fox to live to provide sport another day. The superiority of the fox is evident in the "dialogue" among them as they conspire to provide good sport for the hunt while having a laugh among themselves at the humans, hounds and horses. Foxes are portrayed as family folk who humor the hounds - and the hounds aren't bad guys either. They're just interested in a good run.
The humans, however, are a messy cauldron of emotions - and more than one could be suspects in the disappearance of Nola and Guy. Sister realizes that she needs to solve the mystery before more people get hurt.
Hotspur is a good, fun, read with interesting characters and dialogue - especially among the animals.
Hotspur, published by www.BallantineBooks.com, has a cover price of $24.95.