The Tell-Tale Horse – Rita Mae Brown

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Horse country lives by its own code and the culture of the Virginia hunt is the main story in Rita Mae Brown’s The Tell-Tale Horse. This is a murder mystery, one of the Outfoxed series, but the murder—and then murders—takes a back seat to the hunt for most of the book. More pressing are details of weather, caring for hounds and horses, the complicated connections of the members of the hunt and their guests, winter topography and as much telling as showing.

The book leads off with mini-bios of the characters, including the hounds (who converse throughout), the horses, the foxes, owls and crows (also very chatty) and a few house pets that spar like siblings and live with the protagonist. She is Sister Jane Arnold, Master of Foxhounds of the Jefferson Hunt, and she is at the center of the drama because it is her series and she is the head of the hunt—knows everyone and mostly everything except who has shared a deadly communicable disease with whom and why a killer leaves beautiful naked young corpses posed atop fake and real horses like macabre Lady Godivas.

There is also a guide to foxhunting terms—extremely interesting to read but not entirely necessary–the terms are pretty much explained in the text, as is a lot else. There isn’t any uninterrupted flow in this story because the author stops to clarify so much and fill in a lot of exposition. In fact, a reader might get lost without the guideposts; the only readers who could fly through this tale like a jumper over a fence are foxhunters who already speak the language fluently.

I’m not a big fan of hunting—for sport or any other reason—but no foxes or bunnies are harmed in this book. Sister actually leaves food around for them so they stick to their burrows and provide the occasional wild chase which supplies a breathtaking amount of exercise and an excuse for the tailgate party at the end of the hunt. You could learn all about pink coats, jodhpurs, boots and gloves, why men should ride English in the field and the various roles of all the hunt members, from whippers-in to hilltoppers.

Things heat up as the book progresses and the gossipy, snarky conversations about who is sleeping with whom and who once slept with whom and who may have offed whom paint the Jefferson Hunt Club as a rather loose affair with old friends who might just be lifelong enemies and new members who could be villains or potential stalwarts of the field.

I like arcane trivia about subjects that rate their own vocabulary so the language was interesting. The murder and the superficial psyches of the landed gentry not so much. It was definitely odd to follow conversations between hounds, or foxes, or house cats and pet dogs, or people and owls. All-in-all an okay book but not a gripping read and tough to jump in mid-series and get a firm grip on the characters. From Tally-ho to Goodnight Master is a chaotic ride but the series is unlikely to become a personal obsession. I’m still a tad troubled by the thought of crying hounds and mounted humans careering around the countryside after small wild animals, even if the only living creatures maimed or killed in Brown’s book are the two-legged kind.

The Tell-tale Horse: A Novel   Rita Mae Brown | Ballantine Books  2007

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