Rita's repose: Getting catty with fiction

SOUR PUSS  (A Mrs. Murphy Mystery )


By Rita Mae Brown

272 pages

Bantam Books


While writers of fiction have often deferred to an otherworldly muse for guidance and inspiration, Rita Mae Brown looks to her pets.

"My goal is to think like a cat," she told a rapt local audience Saturday, March 4, describing her approach to the craft. This from an author whose new book cover states, with more good humor than wry wit or irony, that "It Takes a Cat to Write the Purr-fect Mystery."

Brown was at Barracks Road's Barnes & Noble to sign copies of her new book, Sour Puss, the 13th installment of the popular Mrs. Murphy Mystery Series.

The follow-up to last year's Cat's Eyewitness, the story is set in nearby Crozet, a murder mystery spiced with local intrigue and the pomp and politics of the wine industry in the Virginia Piedmont. Here, though, the politics have devolved into violence, and Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen must solve a new riddle: who is responsible for the murder of two wine enthusiasts, and who has poisoned her own wine crop?

A resident of Afton, Brown is a farmer herself, although she readily admits she had to learn about the particulars of farming wine grapes, and that she has a general distaste for alcohol. As much of her loyal local readership also knows, Brown is an animal aficionado. But there's an added dimension to that interest, an uncommon admiration for animal life.

"We [humans] are crazy to them– stark, crazy, mad," she declared to the group with characteristic verve. "We are scared of everything. We watch flat screens with flickering images and think it's real."

This sort of offhand social commentary and comic misanthropy color her writing as much as her public persona. Included alongside a brief "cast of characters" section at the front of the book is a section introducing "the really important characters," a list comprising three cats, a dog, an owl, a possum, a snake, a donkey, and a blue jay.

Indeed, animals figure heavily in Sour Puss, not only as "really important characters," but as key elements in her narrative approach. The cats' charm is the book's easy appeal, their exploits its comic relief, and their dialogue the device that adds expository depth. The animals know things that the humans don't; it's their tenacity that ultimately helps solve the mystery, and their observations on human behavior that offer substance.

In the opening wedding scene, Mrs. Murphy (the most discerning of the three cats), offers some thoughts on matrimony: "Marriage establishes paternity so a man isn't putting a nickel in another man's meter... The whole marriage thing is so ingrained in society that they can't really do without it. Doesn't even matter if they have children. It's something you've got to do."

Brown's voice is evident here as elsewhere. "Who wants to be human?" another of the cats asks. "If there is reincarnation, I'm coming back as myself."

Here, perhaps, is the crux of both Brown's appeal as an author and her efficacy as a social activist: her affable blend of homegrown wisdom and droll world-weariness. Brown's talk had that comfortable, living-room appeal. She could pique the audience's interest, stun them with a touch of controversy, and– before anyone could take offense– answer her own taunt with a humorous riposte.

As is often the case with writers who are also public figures, Brown's reputation precedes her work. A champion of women's issues and an outspoken lesbian, Brown was born in Pennsylvania and graduated from New York University.

Her resume is a primer in civic participation. At NYU, she founded the Student Homophile League. She has been involved with the National Organization of Women (NOW) and the more liberal Redstockings, and she helped to organize the Furies Collective in Washington, DC. She also attended the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, receiving her Ph.D. in Political Science in 1976.

Here in Albemarle she is, among other things, the founding mother of the Piedmont Women's Polo Club.

Since the publication in 1973 of her first novel, the semi-autobiographical Rubyfruit Jungle, Brown has seduced and sustained a national audience, and she has used her success to advance a number of lesbian and feminist causes. Sour Puss is benign entertainment, but the figure of the activist author still looms large in the background. Brown's popularity reveals that– with or without the feline muse present– a good speaker draws a good crowd.

Brown at a 2003 reading at B&N