Rita Mae Brown pursues the uneatable

January 30, 2000|By JODY JAFFE | JODY JAFFE,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Outfoxed," by Rita Mae Brown. Ballantine Books. 396 pages. $24.

There are several reasons to read Rita Mae Brown's newest book, "Outfoxed."

* 143 episode of Mr. Ed weren't enough for you.

* YOU have a weazlebelly.

* You've just been elected head of PETA and want to know your enemy.

* You simply like a snappy mystery, especially ones in which everything including crows, talks.

Brown made a name for herself 27 years ago with "Rubyfruit Jungle,"' arguably the most famous and certainly the funniest lesbian novel ever written. Since then she's gone more mainstream than the Mississippi River, turning out a slew of commercial fiction, a memoir, a how-to writing guide and a mystery series featuring a talking cat.

Through it all, she's never lost her wit. Even her how-to, "Starting From Scratch, A Different Kind of Writer's Manual," bears her trademark Dice-a-matic tongue and robust opinions.

"Outfoxed" is no different. She slices and dices her foes into coleslaw. And she expounds on everything from riding horses ("To ride well is the mark of a gentleman. To ride too well is the mark of a misspent life") to the meaning of life (you'll have to read the book).

But that's a good thing. Her opinions usually fall on the side of the angels (is anyone for raping the countryside?) and she defends them with humor.

In "Outfoxed," everyone's got an opinion, especially thc animals that talk among themselves. They serve as a sort of Greek chorus to the hijinks of humans. Greed, drugs, dirty deals, statutory rape, adultery, murder, forgetting you hair net on the opening fox hunt; they're all there and more for the animals to comment on.

The action starts when the slimy but sometimes likable Fontaine Buruss turns up dead in the middle of the season's first fox hunt. Then it's up to Jane Arnold, the septuagenarian master of the hunt, to figure out who done it. She's not on her own, however. Unbeknown to the master, she's got a menagerie of wisecracking animals to help her lay a trap to catch the killer.

For a reason'. There are two murders in this book and it's not the two-legged victim that Brown and her mouthpiece, Arnold, get worked up over. The killer has also shot a fox -- the ultimate sacrilege to a foxhunter.

"Outfoxed," could be seen as an apologist's retort to the foxhunting debate, raging right now in England where it's on the eve of being banned, but bubbling everywhere for animal rights activists.

This book is set in the foxhunting country of Charlottesville, Va., where Brown lives, writes and most especially foxhunts. So it comes as no surprise that Brown not only vigorously defends the company line that fox-hunting should really be called fox-chasing because that's all they do, but goes one step further, suggesting the foxes enjoy the chase and even plan the route.

Whatever you think of fox-hunting, by the time you finish "Outfoxed," you'll know enough about the sport to pass at a Virginia cocktail party. You'll know what a weazlebelly is (a gentleman's cutaway riding coat with tails); that a lady can pack only one kind of sandwich in her saddle bag (chicken, white bread; no crusts, no mayo); and who gets to wear those funny red coats (hunt staff, masters and gentlemen members). You'll also kndw the exhilaration of the ride. Brown clearly adores horses and she does a masterly job of putting you in the saddle.

The who of the who-done-it is predictable, but like the sport she so loves, this book is more about the chase than the kill.

Jody Jaffe is the author of "Horse of a Different Killer," "Chestnut Mare, Beware," and "In Colt Blood. " All three are mysteries set in the newspaper and horse show worlds. They are published in America, Germany and Japan. She is currently at work on a fourth novel, which is not about horses or newspapers, but a 14-year-old girl who saves a man's life. Jaffe owns three horses and has foxhunted twice -- many years ago.

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