A Nose for Justice

I count Rita Mae Brown as a Southern author because she lives in the Virginia hill country, and many of her books are set there. In the book I review here, however, Brown has gone to a very different part of the country for the setting of a new series. It’s the Nevada desert, where water can easily be a motive for murder.

By Linda Brinson

A NOSE FOR JUSTICE. By Rita Mae Brown. Ballantine Books. 267 pages. $25.

Emboldened, no doubt, by the success of her unorthodox Mrs. Murphy mystery series, Rita Mae Brown has written what’s billed as No. 1 in a new series, to alternate with the established one. This new series takes place in the Nevada desert, a setting that might require a bit of an adjustment for Brown’s fans who like the genteel Virginia horse country where the cat Mrs. Murphy and her feline and canine friends prowl.

What fans of the long-running series will find familiar is that this new book includes animals that talk — in human English for the benefit of the readers, but in what comes across as just so many meows, growls, barks, snarls and hisses to the humans in the book.

So, the first thing to consider when deciding whether to try A Nose for Justice is whether talking animals are your cut of catnip tea. If you’ve tried one of the Mrs. Murphy books, written by Rita Mae Brown “with” her cat Sneaky Pie Brown, and didn’t like it, don’t bother with this one.

Rita Mae and Sneaky Pie probably won’t notice if you don’t, because there are plenty of us animal lovers who find it amusing to imagine with them what animals say to one another — especially when they comment on how odd humans are.

It doesn’t follow, however, that fans of the Mrs. Murphy books will immediately fall in love with the new series. The Nevada setting is interesting, and Brown describes it capably. The main problem with the new locale is that it seems to come with an agenda: Brown is clearly worried about water rights and how overuse and misuse of water threaten agriculture and the environment.

Even in the Mrs. Murphy books, Brown tends to be a bit heavy-handed in using her prose and her characters to make political points. Fans forgive her; the animal and human characters, the story and the setting are enough compensation for the occasional bit of propaganda.

If the new series is going be a hit, Brown will have to develop her cast of characters and her plots sufficiently to keep fans coming back.

This first offering has promise, but it’s not quite there yet. Mags Rogers, the main character, comes across as not fully formed. Maybe it’s because, in her early 30s, she’s reeling from having lost her high-paying job in the Wall Street collapse. She limps home to the ranch where she grew up under the care of her great-aunt, Jeep. Jeep, in her 80s, is by far the most interesting character in the book. A WASP pilot in World War II, she’s now a wealthy woman and a major player in the water wars that are so important in the arid West.

There’s also a budding love interest, in the form of Pete Meadows, a Washoe County sheriff’s deputy who is called out to help solve the inevitable mystery.

There’s an ample cast of other characters, and we get some glimpses of Nevada ‘s rural society, which Brown portrays as quite different from the social scene in small-town Virginia.

The animal heroes are a mismatched pair of dogs: Jeep’s German shepherd mix, King, and Mags’ city-slicker wirehaired dachshund, Baxter. How King and Baxter become friends is part of this initial story, as is, of course, how they charge to the rescue when Mags gets into trouble.

I liked this first book enough to try No. 2 when it arrives. This series isn’t quite up to Mrs. Murphy standards yet, but it has potential. I’m hoping that as Mags recovers from her New York misadventures, she’ll assert herself into as endearing a character as Mrs. Murphy’s “mom,” the indomitable Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen. And if something’s still missing from the formula, maybe Mags could add a cat to the ranch’s talkative menagerie.

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