Do you ever feel like you’re a character in a small-town drama? Well, maybe you are, if Rita Mae Brown has spotted you at Parkway Pharmacy, Crozet Tack and Saddle, Over the Moon bookstore, the Crozet Gazette, or any of the small businesses that dot the town and countryside. Brown includes real people and places in number 27 of the “Mrs. Murphy” series she writes with her cat, “Sneaky Pie” Brown. If you think you recognize yourself in one of the villains of Probable Claws, though, you’ll be wrong.
“I never use living people for my murderers,” she said. She might use you as an extra, though, as she does with Anne de Vault, the proprietor of Over the Moon. Probable Claws begins with the heroine, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, in a conversation with de Vault. Brown is a frequent patron of Over the Moon, and approves of the bookstore’s new location. She’s a life-long student of architecture and also approves of the bookstore’s home, Piedmont Place, as well as the Crozet Library across the street.
In fact, she approves of the whole town: “It’s a place where people of all backgrounds and classes and income levels run into each other every day,” she said, although she acknowledged that might change with creeping gentrification. “We’re the same,” she said of her home, Nelson County, “except that the people who might want gentrification kind of stay up at Wintergreen. They don’t come down much because we think we’re all rednecks.”
The popular “Mrs. Murphy” series is distinctive because the protagonist’s companion animals play a part in solving the murders being investigated by Harry’s friend, Deputy Cynthia “Coop” Cooper. The two cats, Pewter and Mrs. Murphy, and the Corgi, Tucker, trot behind the friendly and inquisitive Harry as she visits friends, runs her errands, does the chores, and not-so-subtly inserts herself into the investigation.
The animals bicker among themselves and have an advantage over the humans: They can understand the fine nuances of human language, while the humans think all of the animal sounds are pretty much the same, except for the recognizable variations in intensity. So the pets demand attention when they spot a clue, but they’re unable to relay complicated information to their owner. The reader remains one step ahead of the human characters because we’re allowed to see what the animals are saying.
For her last couple of books, Brown has included a plot drawn from 18th century Virginia history that connects to the present-day crime, as well as references to natural history, environmental science, architecture and forensics. These are interests of hers, she said, so she enjoys doing the research.
Like most of us who live in the country, Brown said her day often depends on the seasons. Hers is a working farm, with hay and stock and seasonal crops. In summer, she said, she works outside until she finds it too uncomfortable, then retreats inside to write. In winter it’s just the opposite: She writes until the sun is high in the sky before venturing out.
Brown, who’s also a screenwriter, said she learned a great deal from her years in Hollywood. ‘Every minute has to count in a film,” she said, “and that idea has carried over into books.” Brown likes the leisurely pace of southern life and her preference would be to have a narrative unfold slowly, kind of like it might if you were sitting on the porch telling stories.
“There was a time for that,” she said, “but that time is gone.” When she sits down to write, she hopes to make a real step in the narrative with each chapter. “It’s really an emotional step I’m after.” Still, there’s plenty of time for gossip, impromptu visits and friendly concern among her characters. “Because the setting is in the rural South, I’m allowed to be a little poky with the dialogue,” she said.
There’s plenty of generations-long friendships, folk wisdom, rural coping skills and neighborly concern in Probable Claws, adding warmth to the backdrop of a couple of chilling murders, cleverly solved by the quirky team of humans and animals, and reflecting the author’s authentic love and understanding of the area
What’s next? Brown said there’s a new book in her “Sister Jane” series that features the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and a “Sneaky Pie” mystery featuring the National Beagle Club, which is housed at a spectacular (and real) historic property in western Loudoun County.
Speaking to fans who filled the meeting room at Tabor Presbyterian Church July 18 for the book signing, Brown expanded on the peculiarities of the south she loves: “There’s a kind of minuet of manners here that Yankees just don’t understand,” she said. “It’s a whole collection of minutia that enables us to stay polite.” She gives the South a great deal of credit for giving American literature a real voice, with Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison: “Of course, Mark Twain was first,” she said. “Before that, we just imitated Europe.” And what better place to write, she asks. “If you live in New York, you have to spend all your time just staying current. And the feeling of ‘what can you do for me?’ sort of permeates every interaction.”
Brown said she was pleased to produce work that weaves her own interests into the core plot and tells the stories of people like her neighbors who work hard and have affection for each other. “Of course we have problems. Who doesn’t?” she asked the room. “Fear sells, and hate sells, and there are many writers getting rich by feeding you fear.’
As for her, she said, “I’m happy to be here, and I hope you are, too.”