Virginia-based author Rita Mae Brown has penned an impressive 36 novels, though she credits her tiger cat, Sneak Pie Brown, as co-author on her Mrs. Murphy Mystery series. The most recent in that collection, The Purrfect Murder: Mrs. Murphy Mystery (Bantam, 2008), jumps right back into the action with a host of likable characters surrounding amateur sleuth Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen.
Now, unlike famed female detectives Miss Marple, Miss Silver or Mrs. Bradley, Brown’s Mrs. Murphy is not a human detective but a persnickety feline. With the help of fellow cat Pewter and corgi Tucker, Mrs. Bradley assists her owner Harry in working out the details of a couple of gruesome murders.
Purrfect begins as an ambling, character-driven story set in Cozy Crozet, Virginia — home of the old-money country set interested in raising horses and funds for charitable causes, and the nouveau riche moving into McMansions. In fact, so many characters, all quirkily-intriguing, are introduced in the early chapters that Purrfect can be hard to follow. However, Brown is a seasoned writer with serious, critically acclaimed books like 1983’s Ruby Fruit Jungle (about one woman’s explorations of sexuality) under her belt, so it’s easy to trust she’ll get the plot on track.
And she does. Purrfect isn’t just a mystery, it’s the story of a town ensnared in mixed emotions after a prominent OB/GYN (known for performing abortions) is executed. His death-plot is only the tip of the iceberg. It soon surfaces that the killer has the murdered doctor’s records and plans to come after his patients. Suddenly, society women with secrets to hide are forced to confront their pasts in order to save themselves.
Meanwhile, high-maintenance and high-budget newcomer Carla Paulson (who inspires most of the town to dream of merrily choking her) turns up dead at a society function and Harry’s good friend Tazio just so happens to be standing over Carla’s body, holding the knife. (I’m not ruining anything by giving this much away; it’s on the dust jacket.) This is where Purrfect becomes a page-turner.
What Brown’s latest novel isn’t is a riveting who dunnit where armchair detectives can race against the book’s conclusion to gather clues and solve the case. Here, there’s a tidy ending following a fun ride, but instead of “harrowing and thrilling,” readers are more likely to describe Purrfect as “cozy and charming” with a thought-provokingly political under-currant. The animal conversations, if far-fetched, are well-done and will resonate with any pet-lover; the human characters are well fleshed out and recognizable. In all, this a great rainy day or winter evening escape.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter
Rita Mae Brown comes to Malaprop’s on Tuesday, Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. This is a ticketed event, and here’s the deal: A complimentary ticket comes with the purchase of any of Brown’s books, however the bookstore encourages patrons to purchase Purrfect as sales of the book will insure Brown’s return in the future. Also, some proceeds from the sale of Purrfect go to the Asheville Humane Society. Info: 254-6734