The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Rita Mae Brown’s Tally Urquhart

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.

 
 

On Another Note…
 

 

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!

18 Comments

Filed under Rita Mae Brown, Tally Urquhart

18 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Rita Mae Brown’s Tally Urquhart

  1. Thanks for this intro Margot (the character sounds almost like a variant in Post’s Uncle Abner, or is that a mad comparison?). I know Brown from some of her other work, including screenplays, but not from this series. Can’t believe I haven’t picked any of these up – there’s about 20 of them, is that right? I’m a cat person myself but I must admit, I was slightly put off by the feline co-author credit …

    • Sergio – Brown’s got a fairly diverse writing background and I’ve always respected that about her. You’re quite right that this is a long-term series; as of now there are indeed 20 novels in the series. I’ll be honest too; readers who don’t like animals being actively involved in solving mysteries will probably not be too keen on this series, as it’s got lots of animal participation. But there are some terrifically drawn characters and Brown evokes the Northern Virginia setting and culture very effectively. As to your comparison with Uncle Abner, in my opinion Tally Urquhart has a stronger sense of humour and is more approachable if that makes any sense. But I wouldn’t call the comparison completely mad.

      • Thanks Margot – there is a whole range of ‘cozies’ (for want of a better term) that, in terms of marketing at least, I have stayed away from and anthropomorphic mysteries are not something I would consider myself temperamentally well-suited to (shall we say). But you do make Tally sound very compelling – thanks.

        • Sergio – That’s a very good way to put it. If you to get a chance to pick up one of these novels and you find Tally Urquhart’s character interesting, you may want to start with Cat On the Scent, in which Tally makes her first appearance.

  2. I have only read the first one of this series … quite a few years ago… and I did not like the animals being part of the investigation. But, I do have the 2nd and 3rd in the series, so I may pick them up again and have another go at them. I bought the 3rd one because of the cover (skull in the snow in a cat silhouette).

    • Tracy – I can see how that cover would draw your attention. And animals being a part of an investigation is definitely not for everyone. I’ll be interested to see if you feel the same way now if you pick one of them up again…

  3. This is a wonderful series…and Aunt Tally helps to make it so!

  4. Margot, this is a fun series and I’m glad to see Aunt Tally getting some much needed attention. Her character does add another layer to the story and gives readers a deeper glimpse at Harry and how she interacts with Aunt Tally. Such fun characters.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Oh, I agree! Aunt Tally really does add a terrific layer of interest to the series. And you’re right; it also adds to Harry’s character as we see how she interacts with Aunt Tally. That’s a good point.

  5. I’ve always wanted to read this writer Margot as there is a reference to her book Rubyfruit Jungle in the play/film ‘Educating Rita’ which always makes me smile. I must give one of her books a go sometime.

    • Sarah – I hope that if you get the chance to read her work, you like it. Rubyfruit Jungle is styled differently to this series so I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it.

  6. I think the only book I have read by RMB is is Rubyfruit Jungle. And that was a long time ago.

  7. The fact that you talked about Aunt Tally instead of Harry DELIGHTED me. The characters in the Mrs. Murphy mysteries are so much fun. I think the earlier books are the best, though. When Brown made the animals more talkative, she lost something. “Cute” doesn’t equal good, necessarily. I think the best book was “Death at Montecello” (I doubt I have that spelled right. It’s Jefferson’s home.) The actual history told in the story, made it really intriguing, as far as I am concerned! :-)

    • I couldn’t agree more that ‘cute’ is not a synonym for ‘good.’ That’s one of the things I like about Tally Urquhart’s character. She’s not ‘cute.’ And I do like her outspoken attitude and her absolute love for life. I liked Murder at Monticello, too. It was among other things an interesting look at that part of U.S. history and at Jefferson’s life.

  8. Looks like I better go and read the 2nd in the series, so I can read Murder at Monticello, as it does sound interesting based on the descriptions above.

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