Friday, April 30, 2010

Cat of the Century by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown

Harry, better known as Mary Minor Harristeen, was once the postmaster of Crozet, West Virginia. Now retired from her job and re-married to her ex-husband Fair, or Pharamond Harristeen, is now a farmer, working her family's old farm. Her husband is still a Vet, and Harry's constant companions are her two cats, Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, and her Dog, Tee Tucker, all of which are female. Not only can the animals talk to each other and the other animals they meet, but they help Harry solve mysteries, a job which would be so much easier if she could understand animal talk.

Tally Urquhart, Big Mim Sanbourne's mother, is celebrating her 100th birthday this year, and she's been invited to William Woods University for a celebration to mark her 100th's year. Also invited are Harry, who isn't a graduate of WWU, but is much beloved by "Aunt Tally" and loves her in return. To travel to Missouri and Tally's old Alma Mater is a long trip, so Fair buys Harry a new truck so that she can make the trip in safety, in large part because a huge blizzard is coming down on the Ohio Valley, and spreading a thick blanket of white wherever it goes

But all isn't well at the school, two of the Presidents of the Alumnae associations have despised each other since they first went to the school together in 1974. Unlike most graduates, who become friends and remain so even after graduation, Mariah D'Angelo and Flo Langston cordially hate and despise each other. And now that both are on the School's board, their dislike for each other colors their interactions, and is making the School board's proceedings much more fractious than they should be. The Head of the board is a strong-willed woman, but caught between Mariah and Flo, who are stronger yet, she's constantly pulled back and forth between the two. It's gotten so bad that Inez Carpenter, the 98 year old friend and former classmate of Aunt Tally, has had to consider asking her to step down so that Inez can take over. It's not a job that Inez really wants, but by this point, she's not really sure she has a choice.

Then, during a meeting of the board of Alumnae, Mariah accuses Flo, who works as an investment broker, of doing something hinky with Mariah's money- allowing her to make huge profits- until recently, when the profit went to almost nil. Flo says that Mariah is just dreaming, Mariah is still making money, but the country is in a recession, and the profits everywhere are down. Mariah, though, isn't satisfied and tells Flo that she will destroy her for what she's done.

Mariah, too, has problems. She's the treasurer for the board, but her computer crashed, and she lost all her electronic bookkeeping files, including the ones for the board's money, which concerns the board an awful lot- with her complaints about the loss of her money, the board is forced to consider that something hinky might be going on with the money. And then Mariah goes missing for the rest of the meetings of the board, and the concern grows. Flo adds to the talk swirling around Mariah by accusing her of selling reproduction watches in place of the actual high-end watches she is purporting to sell from her jewelry shop, and, of course, Mariah isn't around to defend herself.

However, Tucker smells blood near a manure pile in the college's barn, and tries to alert Harry, but Harry doesn't realize what the pets are telling her, and when Flo herself turns up dead, everyone assumes that Mariah did it, which is bolstered by e-mails from Mariah's account to the rest of the board taking the responsibility for the death and saying "Catch me if you can".

With members of the board dying, Inez, who accompanied Tally home, spends time with Harry and Fair on their farm, and Harry notices that Terri Kincaid, a local WWU Alumnae and Alumnae chapter head, is acting very strange. Her store sells imported French dinnerware, and she's always been a nervous person, but now she's positively crazed, and her mood swings and seesaws back and forth in an almost manic fashion. What could possibly be going on with her? And when she gets in a shipment of "Mexican pots" that are unusually heavy, Terri accidentally breaks one, revealing a bag with white powder inside.

Terri claims it is "sand", and hurriedly takes the pot into the back, but Harry (and Inez, who is with her) have their own suspicions as to what was really in the pot. And when Mariah's body is discovered, dead, but well-preserved under the manure pile up at the college, Harry and the others must figure out who is really killing people, as well as solve the murder of Ralston Peavey, a man found dead, run over twice in the middle of the road not far from Harry's farm long before she was even born. Tally has long wanted to know who killed him, but the truth never came out. Can Harry and co. solve all the murders and untangle the twisted web of lies and deciet?

I always love reading about Harry, Tucker, Mrs. Murphy and the rest, and this book provided a wonderful return to the town of Crozet and Harry. Harry used to be the postmistress, but gave all that up. Now, she's more plugged into the world of her farm and her marriage to Fair, her childhood sweetheart, whom she once divorced when he cheated on her. This story takes Harry out of Crozet and sends her travelling along with her Aunt Tally, yet still manages to feel closed-in, because most of the story takes place in the midst of late spring snowstorms that blanket the entire Ohio Valley in a layer of the white stuff.

Harry does manage to get out and about quite a bit, and this story introduces characters from as far away as Kansas City and St. Louis, but as the books usually do, the murders happen because of an entirely human greed and smallnesss of heart. Even with a college that has graduates who remain as close as the graduates of William Woods University, there is plenty of infighting and difference of opinion that lives on even after the college years are done, as this story amply demonstrates. There are also plenty of resonances with real-world events, from the blizzards of last year and early this year, to the financial messes of AIG and Ponzi schemes like those of Bernie Madoff.

Of course, what makes the series great is the animals, though they have less of a role in solving this one, and it was nice to see Tally and Inez mix it up at the end and show there was plenty of life in both old girls yet, even if they are at or pushing the century mark. The story reads quick, and as is usual, is almost more about the beauty of West Virginia And its wildlife.

One thing I didn't appreciate was being whacked over the head with long discussions or rants about government and the "nanny state" and the failings of people who want the government to give them things. They occupied too much of the book for me and went on too long, and not one of the characters seemed to disagree with the others. I have no problem with an author having an opinion on politics and a political opinion, but unless I'm reading a book on those views, I don't want to be beaten over the head with them in a book meant to entertain. It's especially bad, when because of the overwhelmingness of the one point of view, I can't tell if all the characters talking are meant to be there just for the sake of the story, or are the author's views she's putting in the mouths of her characters.

It's a good mystery, but some other parts of the story turned me off. I hope that in the future, we can have more of the talking animals and pets and more mystery, and less in-your-face politicizing. It was too much and too blatant to make reading the book a truly enjoyable experience for me.

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