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Bargain Bin Mystery #1: “Wish You Were Here” Delivers Brutal Hits with Wit

Wish You Were Here
Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown
Illustrations by Wendy Wray
Bantam Books
1990

Welcome to Bargain Bin Mysteries! In this new feature, I review paperback books that I have bought on the cheap to find you the best in bargain reading.

Today’s contestant is one I have meant to read for a while, and one I am glad to finally share with you. “Wish You Were Here” is the first of the “Mrs. Murphy Mystery” series, written by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie, her tabby.

Sassy is very pleased that I am representing other feline writers on this blog.

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“Took you long enough. Hmph. Hemingway never credited his cats…”

It has cats and it has postcards–two of my favorite things, as anyone who has been subjected to my onslaughts of cat pictures and paper correspondence knows.

Set near Charlottesville, Virginia, in the town of Crozet, the novel opens with postmistress Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen negotiating a divorce from Fair, the town’s veterinarian. Of course, this being a small town, it’s not only friends and family picking sides, but all of Harry’s customers as well.

Accompanied by Mrs. Murphy, a “gray tiger cat, who bears an uncanny resemblance to authoress Sneaky Pie and who is wonderfully intelligent!” (as reported in the cast of characters) and Tee Tucker, a Welsh corgi, Harry spends her days sorting mail and reading other people’s postcards on the sly.

This is how she first notices two of the town’s recently (and brutally) deceased residents received postcards with pictures of tombstones and the typewritten message “Wish You Were Here.” Harry goes on the hunt for murder, with Mrs. Murphy and Tucker running a simultaneous investigation and trying their best to protect their human.

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The cover art is whimsical and gives away just enough of the book.

Does your cat bring in brutally mangled mice? She may just be trying to show you where the murderer left the body.

While at first I thought the novel was a little slow–the first few chapters introduce half the town by having them walk into Harry’s postoffice–I grew to love it. There is a great deal of wit, delivered both by bipeds and quadrupeds. The chapters in which the animals talk amongst themselves, and try to make themselves understood to the clueless humans, are particularly delightful.

The plot quickens and is not overly complicated. Ms. Brown presents readers with a rare accomplishment: a mystery that they can solve, but only a few chapters before the heroine. The resolution is satisfying and surprising, but not forced.

Wish You Were Here is a loving, but not particularly thorough, critique of life in the South. A major subplot involves the wedding of the white mayor’s daughter, who has been banned by her parents from inviting her older brother because he is now married to a black woman. Brown admits that life is not peachy in Crozet, not for all of its residents, at least, but she does not set out to be Upton Sinclair. Commentary in the novel is not particularly preachy and always comes through the lens of a character’s mind.

I thoroughly enjoyed Wish You Were Here. When I found it in the used book cellar at Brookline Booksmith, I was able to also buy the third entry in the series. The second was not on the shelf last I checked, however.

must find the second book, and fast.

4/5 stars: Charming, well-paced, and engaging. Great way to spend an afternoon.

1/5 ‘fraidy cats: Fairly tame, except for a scene of cruelty to a minor animal character that hurts more than any of the humans’ murders.

2/5 ick-factor: Brown leaves just enough to the imagination when describing her brutal murders. Think: cement grinder.