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Book Review: Out of Hounds


2021/09/05


By Tom Brannon, MFH

With many hunts starting cubbing season this month (pending cooler weather, of course) and regular foxhunting season coming soon, it seemed a good time to bring out Rita Mae Brown’s latest foxhunting mystery, Out of Hounds, released in hardcover Jan. 2021. Although this book is set in late winter, fall is still a good time to read one of Rita Mae’s foxhunting thrillers, this one featuring stolen paintings of sidesaddle foxhunters. Note the sidesaddle on the horse on the book cover.

Here’s the publisher’s gist of the book:

Spring is peeking through the frost in Virginia, and though the hunting season is coming to a close, the foxes seem determined to put the members of the Jefferson Hunt Club through their paces. Sister and her friends are enjoying some of the best chases they’ve had all season when the fun is cut short by the theft of Crawford Howard’s treasured Sir Alfred Munnings painting of a woman in hunting attire riding sidesaddle. [Take note, sidesaddle enthusiasts!] When another painting goes missing five days later—also a Munnings, also of a woman hunting sidesaddle—Sister Jane knows it’s no coincidence. Someone is stealing paintings of foxhunters from foxhunters. But why?

Perhaps it’s a form of protest against their sport. For the hunt club isn’t just under attack from the thief. Mysterious signs have started to appear outside their homes, decrying their way of life. “Stop foxhunting: a cruel sport,” reads one that appears outside Crawford’s house, not long after his painting goes missing. “No hounds barking” shows up on the telephone pole outside Sister’s driveway. An annoying sign, but she thinks it’s relatively harmless.

Then Delores Buckingham, retired now but once a formidable foxhunter, is strangled to death after her own Munnings sidesaddle painting is stolen. Now Sister’s not just up against a thief and a few obnoxious signs—she’s on the hunt for a killer!

Getting sidetracked before the killer was found, I was curious about Alfred Munnings’ paintings of sidesaddle riders, and an Internet search turned up plenty of them. You can find them at artuk.org, countrylife.co.uk, foxhuntinglife.com, at sothebys.com, and on Twitter at the Munnings Art Museum. There is a portrait of “Lady Munnings Riding a Grey Hunter (‘Magnolia’) with Her Dogs on Exmoor.” Munnings also painted a scarlet-coated huntsman riding sidesaddle. [did you take note Allison Crews?] Appropriate for cubbing, there’s the Munnings painting “The Lady In Tweed,” sidesaddle of course.

There’s “Portrait of a Sporting Lady” (1929) with hunt whip in hand. You can see more at the Munnings Art Museum at www.munningsmuseum.org.uk

In addition to a nice mystery story, this book has some tidbits of wisdom – about horses, hounds, fox hunting and human nature – sprinkled throughout conversations between the characters.

When Sister is asked to come straight from the hunt to the first theft crime scene, she comments that she reeks of Eau de Cheval (French for “smell of a horse”). Another character comments that it is “the best perfume on earth.” Most horse people would agree and have had similar experiences at one time or another.

In a conversation about which color of horse is the right color, one rider states, “A good horse is the right color.”

On foxhunting: “Like any good master or huntsman, O.J (Sister’s huntsman) knew your pack is made in the middle. A brilliant hound is a thrill, but it’s the good solders that keep it right.” Another observation about the cunning of foxes and coyotes: “One does not hunt dumb animals. The dumb animals are on two feet.”

Money, too much of it or the lack thereof, is also dominant in the plot of the story. One character has a renovated horse farm that everyone in the Virginia countryside has dubbed “Showoff Stables.” The author name drops some luxury items that are incorporated into the barn design, such as Pave Safe flooring, wrought iron railings, and chandeliers. The horses wear halters purchased at Fennell’s in Lexington, Kentucky and wear blankets from Ireland.

The Munnings paintings are not the only thing she uses to let the reader know how wealthy some characters are. They may wear a “thin” Patek Philippe watch ($200,000 +) or drive a Maserati or Lamborghini ($100,000-$200,000). This is a good way that the author can establish a particular character’s personality and their perceived place in society.

A few other comments from the book may be worth (pun intended) quoting. “Funny, isn’t it, how money impresses most people.” “Money is useless sitting still.” “If you haven’t the brains or recourses to succeed, you rip apart others who have.”

Rita Mae Brown said that she wrote this book in real time, beginning in February of 2020 so that the weather she describes would be accurate. But about half way through writing the book, the pandemic knocked her sideways. “How could I ignore it? I did the only thing possible. I took it day by day, changed things, and implored the gods for help for all.” Good advice.

About the author: Dr. Rita Mae Brown, MFH is Master of the Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club near Charlottesville, Virginia.  As well as an accomplished author of over 60 books, she is also an Emmy-nominated screenwriter and a poet. She has ridden horses since her childhood and her early heroes were accomplished riders. In her experience with horses, she learned that you need to build a partnership with a horse or it isn’t going to work. She once said, “Riding changes your mind and your spirit and you become much more grateful for other forms of life.” Find out more about Rita Mae Brown’s books at: www.ritamaebrownbooks.com

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