The mystery novels that author Rita Mae Brown writes with tabby cat co-author Sneaky Pie Brown continue to blend familiar hometown landmarks with disturbing woes from national headlines.
In “Hiss & Tell,” the 31st book in Brown’s series featuring Mary Minor “Harry” Harristeen and her feline sidekick Mrs. Murphy, the toxic toll of fentanyl abuse leaves a trail of bodies across Harristeen’s beloved Crozet, right at Christmastime.
For Brown, a thorough grounding in the Greek and Latin classics yields a keener understanding of contemporary issues, pop culture and politics, and a clearer path toward answers to life’s baffling questions. And the animal characters – Mrs. Murphy, gray cat Pewter and Irish wolfhound puppy Pirate – don’t need opposable thumbs to hold a mirror to human behavior, as only loving outsiders can.
“That’s why the animals are so useful,” Brown told The Daily Progress. “They see the world differently than we do, and then they come and sit on our lap. We are not the crown of creation. We only think we are.”
In the Sneaky Pie books, slinky sleuth Mrs. Murphy often picks up on clues that human investigators miss. Canine and feline friends respect each other’s differences; think of the different meanings conveyed when a dog wags its tail and when a cat lashes its own, for instance.
“One of the joys in this book is the cats and dogs get along,” Brown said. “They learn one another’s languages, and they live and learn. We live in this great, big world, and we only see a part of it. Open the door.”
Animals notice that, among humans, “the higher you are, the less you carry,” she said. “The person who walks in ahead of others and isn’t carrying anything? That’s the boss.”
Brown doesn’t use the fentanyl storyline as an excuse to preach. “For me, that’s the point. People don’t need to be beaten over the head and told, ‘Isn’t that awful?’” she said. “I have no desire to be the smartest person in the world.
“The research I did on [fentanyl] really shocked me. I wanted it to touch the lives of these people [in ‘Hiss & Tell’]. We’re all affected by these things over which we have no control – or we think we have no control.”
Instead, the crisis can turn not-my-problem platitudes on their heads.
“You read Plutarch, you read Seneca, and what we have that they didn’t have is we have information and disinformation 24 hours a day,” Brown said. The result is a mix of fear and hate messages that can be hard to tune out.
“We’ve known this since the sixth century B.C., but nobody pays any attention,” Brown said. “We just seem incapable of learning. The only thing that saved me was learning Greek and Latin.”
Turning back to the classics offers time-tested ways to examine the hard-headed and hard-hearted sides of human nature for a more comprehensive view of the world. It also doesn’t hurt as a way to spot the good guys in a particular fight.
Brown said she remembers a memorable talk with author Toni Morrison and realizing that of all the topics that could have drawn them together, such as gender or race, they bonded over a shared devotion to classical literature.
“We talked about Thucydides,” Brown said. “She was a classics minor at Howard [University], and I was in classics at [New York University]. She knew right away that my hero was Aristophanes.”
Laughter offers another path to insight, and Brown is fond of Tyler Perry’s disarming approach. “He removes the defensiveness,” she said.
“I know those old ladies,” she said of the outspoken seniors in Perry’s “Madea” films. “I grew up with those old ladies.”
She also relishes the way in which comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Leslie Jones cuts to the chase to express her disappointment in a recently unveiled statue honoring Martin Luther King Jr. “She swears a lot, she is funny and she just lays it out there,” Brown said.
“We don’t understand how important humor is,” Brown said. “I still believe humor is the best path if you can do it, and it doesn’t have to be Lenny Bruce. Aristophanes did it. The Greeks did it.
“In America, there are so many pathways that can all lead to the truth. I just resent paying people to blow their big mouths off, whether on TV or in the House of Representatives, and produce nothing.”
When she tires of the clamor in today’s public sphere and the “brain power” wasted on persuading people to buy the right deodorant, Brown finds serenity on her Afton farm in the seat of her 1956 John Deere tractor. Everything ends up coming back to the creatures – and the classics.
“There’s nothing to really interfere with my thinking. I’m not surrounded by noise,” she said of farm life. “We’re afraid of silence, It’s because when silence comes, knowledge comes.”
Finally finding a clear-eyed path to truth after so much self-examination and cultural scrutiny brings its own rewards. To Brown, one of the most valuable is a realization of how singular and special the American experiment is. Acknowledging flaws and failings along with achievements helps craft a more complete and meaningful picture of a nation like no other.
“I think Americans are ultimately fascinating,” Brown said, calling Americans “a good and generous people.”
“We are the only nation that ever rebuilt our enemies after a war. Did we make mistakes? Did we profit from slavery? Yes, we did,” she said. “You point me to another culture that’s had the ability to question leaders face to face. That’s what so different about our culture.”
To help reveal insights about the culture we call home, “I go sideways through entertainment,” Brown said. “My goal is to be the Will Rogers of literature.”
“Hiss & Tell” is available Tuesday from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart and other retailers. Learn more at penguinrandomhouse.com.