Monday, November 17, 2014

Cats, Dogs. Monticello.

Harry, her pet tiger cat, Mrs. Murphy, and pet corgi, Tee Tucker, are back in their third installment, Murder at Monticello. A deep look into history and relationships comes into thematic play in Murder at Monticello. And this time the three sniff, sneak, and ruminate over a centuries-old skeleton dug up during an archaeological dig.  The remains were found underneath the slave quarters surrounding American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson‘s home. Further research and investigation uncovers that it’s the remains of a wealthy white man, dressed and decorated as a man of status during his era. So when questions arise concerning whom this man was and how he found himself bludgeoned and buried underneath the slave quarters' fire place, the citizens of Crozet are suddenly under watch as a murderer begins to pick off those researching this unearthed and ancient scandalous affair.

As always, I love Rita Mae Brown’s “creamy” way with words and characters, and her even “creamier“ cozy mysteries. She does small-town murders with big personalities well–whether it’s through the perspective of a cat or dog. (Or possum or owl.) However, I sometimes do struggle with maintaining her list of characters, with their off-beat names and nicknames. Though she’s a series regular, characters like Big Marilyn Sanburne (the “queen of Crozet”) is often referred to as Mim, Big Marilyn, Mrs. Sanburne, or Marilyn within the narrative flow. Then toss in her daughter Little Marilyn, and other names like Miranda Hogendobber and Mary Minor Haristeen (who is the main character, Harry), and sometimes I had to take a small recollective step back. However, it’s not that bad once you get the hang of these characters as well as establishing which has specific relations with who (pay close attention to the husbands involved).  I can say that Brown placing a Cast of Characters list at the beginning of the book was helpful and necessary. But still, sometimes I just needed a visual to keep up.

If following the characters and their relations with one another weren't enough, you should be forewarned that you may want to brush up just a touch on your American History. While the subject of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency may seem familiar on the surface, watching these characters (including Mrs. Murphy and Tee Tucker) work to unfold his lineage will require a degree of concentration.  Of course that's if you are interested enough to tackle the subject just as Brown did.  Personally, I kind of ho hum'ed my way through knowing I would never remember the details, but trusted that if it related to the actual mystery Brown would set it all straight in the end.  Nonetheless, the study on period attire, 19th century politics, and slave/owner relations, may bring confusion just as well.  So how they relate to the mystery?  Well, you'll either get these essential subjects as a whole, or in pieces. Just be ready for a stack of historical and genealogical information.

With all that said, I found the mystery itself layered and pretty satisfying, if not easy. I think the ease came from how the book is told through the third person, so you gather all the quirks, manners, motivations, and aspirations of each of the characters and their respective potential as the murderous culprit. From that point, it became a simple matter of deduction outside of the obvious; therefore, not too much came unexpectedly.  This leads me to the ending and retrieval of the culprit. In this instance, the mystery was dissatisfying.  Unlike the excitement in the previous two books, Harry and her pets didn't have a standoff with the killer.  Those scenes I really enjoyed and missed this time around.

I think the best part of Murder of Monticello is the layers, and the way Brown peels each layer away to construct her mystery. (Okay, besides Mrs. Murphy and Tee Tucker in conversation and action.) The murder(s) were done in a greedy attempt to hide family secrets generations deep. With a political slant relating race issues and history. So there’s always more to a Brown book besides a story featuring animals as sleuths. Lots and lots more. And I think that’s why I like these books. They're fun, easy, peculiar, and multi-layered enough to keep me interested.

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