The Mule Ears (Big Bend Country Mystery, #4)
June 20, 2023
ISBN 979-8399131948; 278 pages
After another spectacularly appalling verbal sparring match, caught on camera no less, Matilda “Tilda” Quigg and Beatrice Shoot agree to meet out of the way of prying eyes and discuss their suddenly embarrassing public images. But when Beatrice arrives at Tilda’s home in a remote corner of her 400,000-acre ranch, she finds her rival unconscious at the bottom of the steep central stairway. Close on Beatrice’s heels is Tilda’s housekeeper, who immediately calls the ranch foreman to transport their boss to the nearest medical center. Rumors soon fly through the Far West Texas grapevine that Tilda’s fall may not have been an accident.
However, this is not the only excitement in Brewster County these days. A Hollywood film company is in the area shooting a movie about a real-life murder that had involved many of the county residents, including Beatrice’s brother, Sheriff Clayton Shoot, and his former love interest, Dr. Claire Harp, a professor at nearby Sul Ross State University. Among the celebrities in town and lending a certain cachet to the film is Claire’s younger brother, Alex. When the film company decides to host a publicity dinner for the stars to meet the characters they are playing in the flesh, Alex and Beatrice develop a scheme to reignite the romance between Clayton and Claire by getting their celebrity counterparts to flirt with them, thinking a little jealousy will do the trick. What could possibly go wrong?
The Mule Ears is the fourth book in the Big Bend Country Mysteries, author J.J. Rusz’s excellent Far West Texas-set series. It is a light-hearted (especially considering the opening) and vastly entertaining follow-up that fans of the series will surely enjoy. The plot, which begins on a serious note, is full of didn’t-see-that-coming twists that will make readers’ heads spin. Each one alters the nature of the story and sends it off in a new and exciting direction. With multiple points of view, readers gain insight into the inner workings of several recurring characters and new ones that promise (or threaten) to, perhaps, stick around awhile.
After the adventures of the first three books, life seems to have settled down in Brewster County. While Clayton and Claire’s relationship may have reached a companionable state, others in town are not inclined to follow suit and appear to thrive on the excitement of mixing it up with each other. Prime examples are Beatrice and Tilda’s long-standing feud and Beatrice's contentious relationship with a certain retired Air Force chief master sergeant. Not everyone is content with easy compatibility. Some are looking for someone who will stimulate their spirit and beliefs. Enemies become allies over margaritas and ranch water.
Another thread weaving through the stories is one of second chances or new beginnings: not necessarily do-overs, but second chapters in life. From Gretchyn Whyrl Pearson’s second career as a reporter to unforeseen marriage proposals to Ella and Barney Nixon’s adjustments after their car accident, there are examples of men and women adapting to previously undreamed-of and hope-filled futures.
As expected, the Far West Texas location plays a role in the events of the story and is a unique backdrop against which things unfold. The author conveys an authentic sense of the environment, the sparse population, and the great distances between what, to most readers, are mere dots on a map. Those dots, however, represent real, living, breathing, and close-knit communities of people sharing a special region of the state. As with the earlier book, the title comes from a landmark within Big Bend National Park, and this one is hard to miss, looking like two giant mule ears sticking up in the desert.
So, with rumors swirling, Oklahoma gangsters appearing, Hollywood film crews swanning about the star-struck locals, and a well-meaning prank going sideways, there’s a lot of action and humor throughout the pages. Since the plot builds on backstories developed over the series, this latest addition would be enjoyed most thoroughly after reading the previous three books.
THE MULE EARS is recommended for fans of the BIG BEND COUNTRY MYSTERY series and mystery readers who enjoy humorous turns of events in their stories.
J. J. Rusz is the pen name of John J Ruszkiewicz, creator of the Big Bend Country Mysteries. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, he earned a BA from St. Vincent College in 1972 and a PhD in English from The Ohio State University in 1977. The author of a wide range of college textbooks, including Everything's an Argument and How to Write Anything. He is now retired from the University of Texas at Austin, where he taught literature, rhetoric, and composition for 40 years. At UT-Austin, he worked to establish a Department of Rhetoric and Writing, chaired the unit, served three terms on the Texas Union Board, was elected to the University Council/Faculty Senate, won a Hamilton Award for Everything’s An Argument, and a President’s Associates Distinguished Teaching award. The Conference of College Teachers of English of Texas honored him with its Frances Hernandez Teacher-Scholar Award in 2012. He has been a resident of Brewster County, Texas, since 2005.