It’s unbelievable isn’t it that the Crime Fiction Alphabet has reached the 21st stop on our dangerous tour without any casualties – well, except perhaps for those TBR lists… I credit our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us all safe and having a terrific time. Everyone’s checking itineraries and finding out what the amenities are on our last few stops, so I’ll take this opportunity to offer my contribution for this stop: Rita Mae Brown’s Thalia ‘Tally’ Urquhart. She’s usually referred to as Miss Tally or Aunt Tally.
Let me start by saying that Tally Urquhart is not the main sleuth in Brown’s series. The central sleuth is Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen, farmer, vine grower and former postmistress of the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. But don’t let that fool you. Tally Urquhart is a force to be reckoned with.
She is an elderly woman, in her nineties when we first ‘meet’ her. She’s also one of Crozet’s genuine ‘blue-bloods,’ and until twenty years ago, she was the undisputed leader of Crozet society. Now, her niece Marilyn ‘Big Mim’ Sanborne is the Queen of Crozet but Tally Urquhart still commands an awful lot of respect and deference. In fact she’s one of the very few people who can put Big Mim in her place. And she’s not afraid to do so either, but more on her outspokenness in a moment.
In Cat on the Scent, in which we are introduced to Miss Tally, everyone in Crozet is getting ready for a U.S. Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of Oak Ridge. Then one of the participants county commissioner Tommy Van Allen disappears and so does his prized single-engine plane. Then another re-enactor, wealthy Sir Henry Vane-Tempest ‘H. Van,’ is shot in the back during the battle re-enactment. When Van Allen is later discovered murdered Harry looks for a connection between the two deaths. That connection may be that the two men were involved in a dispute about local land development. But it’s not so simple or so complex as that. Tally Urquhart gets involved when Tommy Van Allen’s plane is discovered in her barn, a place she rarely uses. As she is questioned by the sheriff, we learn several things about her.
One of them is that she is a living repository of local history. Her memory and ability to tell stories makes her a very appealing character. She knows everyone in the area and she knows the history of nearly everyone’s family, so although she doesn’t solve crimes, she is a valuable resource. She has a perspective on the locals and their families that gives her insight on what people are and aren’t likely to have done. She’s intelligent too and both Harry and Sheriff Shaw know that it’s worth listening to her when it comes to who might have committed murder.
Tally is only too happy to share her perspective and that too makes her appealing. She’s plain-spoken and really doesn’t care what other people think about what she says. She’s not deliberately hurtful but she doesn’t mince words. In The Purrfect Murder for instance, Harry and Shaw investigate the stabbing death of wealthy incomer Carla Paulson. Paulson hired local architect Tazio Chappers to build a house that would be the envy of the area but things haven’t worked out well. And when Chappers is found with the murder weapon, it looks as though this is a clear-cut murder. It’s not though, and there turn out to be several suspects. One of them is building inspector Mike McElvoy. Here’s what Tally Urquhart has to say about that.
‘Profanity delighted Aunt Tally, who would pepper her comments with some just to see the sulfur hiss out of her niece’s bejeweled ears.
‘Balls.’ Aunt Tally lived up to her reputation.
‘Aunt Tally.’ Big Mim stared crossly at her.
‘I mean Mike McElvoy doesn’t have the balls to kill anyone.’ She sniffed. ‘Don’t trust him, though. He’s like a trombone slightly off-key, but I can’t identify what’s off, what’s weird.’’
Mostly because of her social position and also in part because of her age, no-one makes much of an effort to get her to be more circumspect. In fact, except for her niece, most people rather enjoy Aunt Tally’s habit of speaking her mind.
But her outspoken way of expressing herself doesn’t mean Aunt Tally is not compassionate. She speaks her mind but she’s not nasty or malicious. She’s got her own personal scars and she knows how it feels to be hurt. That layer of compassion adds to her appeal.
Miss Tally has a fascinating personal history too, and as we learn it in the course of the novels that feature her, we discover that she’s really led an interesting life, largely free of the need for social conformity that can hinder one’s horizons in a very traditional small town. For example, she flew airplanes in the early decades of flight, long before it was considered ‘respectable’ for women to fly. In fact one of the fields on her property is still exactly level because it was used for takeoffs and landings. She’s never been much of a one for conventional marriage, and in fact had more than one love affair long before it was acceptable for ‘ladies’ to do so. Even now that she’s in her nineties, she still flirts and it’s refreshing to see a character who loves life as much as she does.
Aunt Tally has a lot of energy and vitality too. She keeps up with younger dancers at evening events, she’s a smart and shrewd thinker and she accomplishes what she wants to accomplish. Her interest in embracing life makes her very appealing.
Miss Tally Urquhart is smart, wise, strong-willed and interesting. She’s got so many good stories to tell and a plain-spoken way of telling them. I hope I have her energy and interest in life if I reach my nineties. I’d love to have a drink with her and hear what she has to say. I’ll bet I’d get some good advice.
I’d like to wish all of my Canadian readers a very Happy Thanksgiving! I know I for one am very grateful for all of you. Enjoy your special day!