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Scarlet Fever by Rita Mae Brown
Review by Tommy Brannon
Fox hunting season is ending and those of us who love to ride to hounds are going into withdrawal until cubbing starts back up again. We need a slow recovery from our adrenaline-laced passion for the hunt. As an avid foxhunter I also enjoy reading about foxhunting, and bestselling author Rita Mae Brown, MFH of the Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club certainly knows how to weave an interesting mystery tale in the context of foxhunting. Steeped in the deep traditions of Virginia horse country and featuring a colorful cast of characters, Scarlet Fever is another spirited foxhunting mystery from Rita Mae Brown. She likes to incorporate puns in the titles of her books, and the pun in this title refers to not only the disease, but more so the scarlet coats that foxhunting masters and staff wear.
Scarlet Feveris Brown’s twelfth novel in the Sister Jane series, which is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of central Virginia, where the author resides. The protagonist in the books is Jane Arnold, MFH, known to everyone as “Sister,” the dutiful master of the Jefferson Hunt. The six feet tall, silver haired beauty lives on a farm with dogs, a cat, and a stable full of Thoroughbred hunt horses, which she needs, as the Jefferson pack goes out fox hunting several days a week.
As in many of the Sister Jane novels, a listing of the main characters – human, equine, canine, and vulpine – is provided at the beginning of the book, along with a glossary of fox hunting terms for non-foxhunters. The animals all talk to each other, although none of the humans can understand them. This author has great insight into animal behavior and the animals verbalize this to the reader.
The richness of this novel rests in the varied characters. Some come from families, both black and white, that have lived in the Old Dominion since colonial times; some are nouveau riche transplants from as far away as Chicago or even Pakistan. Most have been bitten by the fox hunting bug and are thoroughly engulfed in the sport.
The time setting for this book is toward the end of the 2019 hunt season. For this particular season, many hunts have been canceled due to foul weather and the riders, hounds, and even the foxes have been sorely disappointed. Many of the horses aren’t as fit as they normally would be and this has tempered some of the season’s hunts. Most members of the Jefferson Hunt want the season to last as long as possible, but the weather will not cooperate.
I got up early one morning to have some extra time to read this book and, at one point, awoke my wife with, “She’s killed someone in the parking lot at Horse Country!” That was also the day I received my latest edition of Horse Country magazine. For those unfamiliar with the store and their publication, Horse Country Saddlery is the quintessential foxhunting shop in Warrenton, Virginia.
The plot begins as Harry Dunbar, an avid fox hunter, member of the Jefferson Hunt Club and owner of a high end antique shop specializing in eighteenth century furniture, is found dead with his skull cracked at the bottom of an icy stairway outside of Horse Country Saddlery. There are no telltale signs of foul play—save for the priceless (and stolen) Erté fox ring in his pocket. “Sister” and her hounds set out to uncover the truth: was this simply an accident or something much more sinister?
Then there’s the feud between Dunbar and the Taylor brothers, Drew and Morris (who also fox hunt) over a decades-old estate sale deal. To complicate matters further, Morris has advanced dementia and is prone to out-of-control fits, taking his anger out on his ne’er do well son Bainbridge, while Drew seems to be spending money beyond his apparent means.
Then there is Kathleen, Harry Dunbar’s wife. Thing is, nobody even new Harry had a wife! He never spoke of her. They had been married right after graduation from William and Mary College in 1987, but separated shortly thereafter and never divorced. She owned a florist business in Oklahoma City. He bequeathed her everything, except a very valuable Louis XV desk that he left to Sister. Kathleen sold her business and moved to Virginia, taking over Harry’s lucrative antique shop. Just as the reader learns of the cause of Harry’s death, another body is discovered by the hounds on the last hunt of the season, concealed in an almost inaccessible overgrown thicket. A man hunt by the police and chase ensue.
Brown weaves several threads of plot back and forth, and there are several mysteries taking place simultaneously. These are interspersed with excellent descriptions of foxhunts from the perspective of hounds, humans, and quarry. Many fox hunters will be captivated by the in-depth accounts of the various hunts and the interaction between the humans, horses, hounds, and the foxes. The fox, in every case, eventually gives the pack the slip or goes to ground, taunting the hounds in their frustration. The descriptions of the countryside are so vivid that it makes one want to take a trip there and bring your horse.
Dr. Brown is Master of Foxhounds and huntsman of the Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club. Read more about her books at: https://www.ritamaebrownbooks.com/
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