Saturday, December 25, 2021

Whiskers in the Dark (Mrs. Murphy #28), by Rita Mae Brown (author), Sneaky Pie Brown (author), Kate Forbes (narrator)

Recorded Books, ISBN 9781980029946, June 2019

After a major nor'easter hits northern Virginia, Harry Harristeen and her friends join the groundskeeping efforts for the National Beagle Club at Aldie. There's a major charity event coming up, Hounds for Heroes, a benefit for war veterans. Harry's two cats, Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, and two dogs, Tucker the corgi and new addition, six-month-old Irish wolfhound puppy, Pirate, have come with her.

What should have been a pleasant and productive couple of days changes abruptly when one of those friends, Jason Holzknect, is found dead, with his throat cut. This terrible event is made worse by the fact that there is simply no evidence of who did it, or what their motive was.  It's clear the killer is frighteningly competent at killing, and very familiar with the grounds.

Meanwhile, Harry's cats and dogs have a new friend, a beagle named Ruff, who is a ghost. He tells them that his human friend was killed. He wants justice for her, but has no idea how to get it. The animals share what they know, keep alert, and Harry's animals promise to return when they can. We do hear, from the humans, that there is a missing person, another beagle hunting enthusiast, who has been missing long enough that she's probably dead, but, again, no evidence.

Then a different kind of mystery presents itself: At the church Harry attends, St. Luke's Lutheran Church, an 18th century grave is disturbed, apparently by someone ineptly trying to dig it up. When the grave is opened to attempt to figure out why, a third body, or rather skeleton, is found on top of the coffins of the married couple buried there. Forensic examination shows it's almost certainly a black woman, that her neck was intentionally broken, and for extra mystery, she's got what appear to be very valuable pearls. Why would the killer not have taken the pearls?

As in other recent Mrs. Murphy mysteries, we alternate between the current day and its mystery, and events of the 18th century that illuminate the puzzle of the murdered black woman in someone else's grave. In the present day, Harry soon becomes a lone voice pushing for an investigation of the death of Jason and, a few weeks later, his wife Claire, that takes their professional past into account. Jason was a retired foreign service officer, and Claire a retired naval officer and later CIA agent, both valuable in their roles due to their language skills. The people that don't just brush this aside tell Harry that pushing on this could be dangerous for her.

I enjoy the characters, including the animals, as well as the setting. This isn't a fast-paced story with obvious danger; if that's what you like, this might not be the book for you. 

I'll further say a few words about 18th century portion of the story. It involves two Virginia plantations, and the owners and slaves on both. Clearly good: The slaves don't talk "dialect" but rather just like ordinary people who are just not educated beyond what's necessary for their masters' benefit. They're people, not caricatures. More problematic, but for reasons I'll state, I don't think wholly bad. Mixed, let's say. One of the slaveholding families thinks of themselves as good slaveowners, and try to be good and fair. They try to "do right" by their slaves to the extend that they understand it. And we do see the head of that family, in mulling over his two adult daughters request that he free two slaves, working his way through what his late wife would really have wanted, whether it would really be best for the slaves involved to free them, the question of whether anyone is really free as we all have obligations--and finally, finally, coming to the conclusion that actual physical bondage is worse than any other limitations on freedom, and going along with his daughters' recommendation.

Not everyone is going to be comfortable with that. I do think, though, that it's Rita Mae Brown trying, not to defend slavery, but in fact to show that in fact even the "best" slaveowners  had at best a reluctance to fully confront just how completely wrong the whole system was. Not everyone will agree with me on that interpretation, and that's a reason to at least be prepared for the fact that that section is there.

I liked it, despite its faults, but the faults are there.

I bought this audiobook.

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