Fox Tracks by Rita Mae Brown is the eighth book in the Sister Jane foxhunting cozy mystery series (available November 20, 2012).
Fox Tracks is Rita Mae Brown’s eighth “Sister” Jane Arnold mystery, but the first I have read. I picked this one up because the mysteries relate to modern foxhunting, something about which I knew very little other than that it is legal in the United States, but the focus is on chasing the foxes rather than killing them. My limited information seemed to be borne out by the story, plus I learned quite a bit more about the whole process, in quite a bit of detail.
What I especially liked about the foxhunting aspect of the story was how what seems like a simple enough thing—getting on a horse and chasing a wild animal—turns out to have all sorts of organizational, economic, social, and political aspects.
To the general public, foxhunting is an eccentric sport, but to the characters in this novel, it’s an integral part of life. For instance, the following conversation reveals quite a lot about how interpersonal relations, the social structure of the foxhunting subculture, animal welfare, and economics interact.
“Young Brian has to be dumb as a sack of hammers to ignore the advice of not just two senior hunts, but hunts with politically astute masters,” said O.J. “He’s going to have a less than easy time as master.”
“Yes and no,” said Sister. “Times are hard. Everywhere. Many hunts are having to breed fewer hounds, cut back on staff. We’re all doing what we can to keep operating and to make sure all the hounds and horses in our care receive the best of everything. You can cut corners, but not there. And my feed bills just go up and up.” Sister twirled her forefinger upward. “We had to hire a professional whipper-in, it was necessary for both parties, so our budget is imperiled.”
“Mmm,” the younger woman murmured to herself. “Money. So you’re telling me Brian took Crawford’s money knowing he was inviting a man who runs an outlaw pack over your territory? And I doubt Crawford fixes one bloody fence if he knocks it down.” O.J. frowned.
“Rumor has it that Crawford had spent about twenty-five thousand dollars at the Navy Man’s Hunt,” said Sister, sharing gossip about the hunt founded by a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. O.J. folded her hands. “That’s being a master. You solve problems. You look ahead. You do your best, knowing there’s always someone who thinks they could have done it better, and maybe they could, but they aren’t sitting in the driver’s seat.”
I will confess that the beginning of the novel was somewhat difficult for me; there were a lot of interrelated characters to make sense of, and to me the Hunt Ball they were attending was an alien world. (For those new to the series, a guide to the characters is included, including a guide to various horses and hounds who appear; it’s a long list!) But I stuck with it, trusting that eventually it would all make sense, and it did.
I had waited patiently to learn more about the actual experience of a foxhunt, and was rewarded fairly soon. As before, Brown not only shows the event, but provides explanatory background so it can be properly appreciated.
Those members smart enough to have bought a made hunter, one who knew the sport, themselves not made at all, also filled the Second Flight ranks. An experienced horse took care of them so the rider could learn much faster. Hunting could be complex, especially for green riders on green horses, a mixture not conducive to confidence.
I think it would be easier to get into this series by starting at the beginning, but if you’re new to it, and are patient, it’s worthwhile. Also, you’ll end up with some great dinner conversation about riding to hounds!
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Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War I-set Spice Brief, “Under Her Uniform”, is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.
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