The Hunt Ball, by Rita Mae Brown
4/10, a confusing soap opera of a mystery interrupted by social pontification
Any time you open a book with a seven-page cast of characters, all of whom are unfamiliar, it’s a bad sign, or at least a sign that perhaps you shouldn’t be starting with this book. The Hunt Ball is the fourth or perhaps the fifth in a series of “foxhunting mysteries” by Brown, clearly relying on the reader to remember characters from the previous books. The “Cast of Characters” is thrown in more as a warning than a guide. Still, I’ve managed to start other series midway through and even enjoy them (Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective, for one), so I forged on ahead.
The problem with this book isn’t necessarily with the cast of characters, or perhaps I should say the only problem isn’t with the cast of characters. I got the characters as a list of names, only occasionally with personalities assigned to them. Here is how some of the characters are built up:
“Pamela Rene has been a pain in the ass since her sophomore year. [...] She’s furious because she wasn’t elected class president. You will recall she accused Valentina of voter fraud. A bad apple,” Knute said.
Got that, everyone? Pamela = bad apple. A character said it, so it doesn’t count as exposition, right? And with a cast of characters this big, you can’t afford to show the important character traits, right? So it’s okay.
“She has a mother who was once the highest-paid model in New York and still wants the limelight, and a father who has built one of the largest trucking companies in America. there’s not much time for Pamela.” Amy knew the Rene family well.
That sounds like the perfectly natural conversation of a couple people at a small school who have been teaching this girl for three years, doesn’t it? Eesh.
The murder, when it happens, is effective enough, but we don’t have a strong central character to follow through the unraveling of it. Sister Jane Arnold, ostensibly the heroine of the book, appears in less than half of it, much of which is taken up with explanations of the details of American foxhunting (they don’t kill the fox, just chase it around, and it’s okay because the foxes like it, as evidenced by the few otherwise pointless scenes in which the foxes talk to each other) or descriptions of people she once knew. The murder in a mystery should be the catalyst for action: every scene following it should yank the reader forward. What does this clue mean? Why did this person say/do what they did? And each revelation should bring more questions, until the denouement. Ideally, too, there should be some suspense. There’s a killer on the loose! Who knows who might be next?! In The Hunt Ball, the murder makes people vaguely worried. There are no clues to follow up on, so life more or less just meanders on as it did before, until the second murder. Which is kept quiet so it won’t affect the hunt ball.
The hunt ball, of course, is where everything unravels, but even there, Brown is unable to build any suspense or tension. An incident occurs that sets tensions boiling over into a fight, which would be great if we’d been allowed to follow a character long enough to feel that tension. The next incident, which leads to another killing and the resolution of the case, starts happening out of sight of the point of view characters and is only caught near the end. It has all the tension of one of the far too many foxhunts presented in the book, described apparently for the pleasure of describing them rather than to advance the story. And let’s not forget the little commentaries Brown intersperses her story with:
Young women should not wear diamonds, rubies, or sapphires. They are not yet ready to carry such responsibility, for jewelry, in its way, determines a woman’s place.
Lastly, she seems very confused about what the difference is between red, gray, and black foxes–unforgivable for someone writing about people who are supposedly experts. It’d be like writing a book about astronomers who think moons turn into stars.
I try to select good books, so the ratings I’ve given in my reviews to date generally fall above the 7-line. I seriously considered not finishing this book several times. Maybe it’s just not for me, but heck, these are my ratings, and given the complete lack of character development, plot movement, narrative flow, or suspense–in a murder mystery!!–I think a 4 is generous. At least I didn’t throw it across the room.