Rita Mae rides again

The prolific author Rita Mae Brown now gives us a new book in her “canine mystery series” each fall, to tide us over while we wait for the new book in her Mrs. Murphy mystery series (feline and canine) to arrive in spring.

By Linda Brinson

MURDER UNLEASHED. By Rita Mae Brown.  Ballantine Books. 267 pages. $25.

Last year, Rita Mae Brown started a Western version of her popular Mrs. Murphy series, which is set in the Virginia hills near Charlottesville. The new series takes place in the high desert near Reno, Nev. Like the Mrs. Murphy books, the new ones feature pets – in this case, dogs (and sometimes wild coyotes), but not cats – whose conversations and observations the readers – but not the human characters – can understand.

Some of us who love such things about the Mrs. Murphy series as the setting at the edge of the Blue Ridge, the wise cats and the familiar characters may have a little trouble adjusting to the new offerings. A desert ranch is a far cry from a farm in horse country, and anything-goes Nevada is not at all like we’ve-always-done-it-this way Virginia.

But if you give it a chance, the new series can grow on you.  The very unfamiliarity of Reno and the neighboring desert makes them interesting.  And in this second book, the human characters – most notably, Mags Rogers, who came home to Nevada a victim of the Wall Street crash, and her great-aunt, Jeep Reed, a tough, independent rancher – begin to strike the readers more as friends than strangers.

Brown does a good job of tackling timely issues in her novels. In this case, she’s dealing with the disaster in Nevada’s real-estate market. When Mags, Jeep and their friends become aware of homeless people living as squatters in foreclosed homes, they decide to do something to help them, especially the families with children.

A few people with a sense of right and wrong may not be able to do everything necessary to combat the effects of ruthless, heartless banking practices; the indifference of utility companies; and the opportunism of corrupt politicians.  But they can raise awareness, rally the good people in the community and, maybe, make a difference.

Murder intrudes, however, when the body of a former banker is found in one of the abandoned homes. And the violence and danger don’t stop there.

If you’re a Rita Mae Brown fan, you know that things will get exciting, and you know that the dogs – in this series, Jeep’s German Shepherd, King; Mags’ wire-haired dachshund, Baxter; and a new friend – will play important roles.

As always, Brown doesn’t mince words or hide her own opinions on the political and moral issues involved. The Nevada series has strong similarities to the Virginia one, but the new setting and new characters with different backgrounds and points of view, allow her and her canine helpers to tackle a whole new range of problems.

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