As the men and women of Crozet, Virginia, prepare for a local Civil War reenactment, popular Tommy Van Allen is reported missing. No one's seen his single-engine plane, eitherno one but Mrs. Murphy, who spotted it during a foggy evening's mousing in Tally Urquhart's abandoned barn. Even if fat cat Pewter insists that "nothing ever happens in May," Mrs. Murphy is certain that something sinister did occur that night on the Urquharts' deserted airstrip.
But how can Mrs. Murphy prove it when everyone in town is preoccupied with the debate over the region's new reservoirand the money and power that are at stake. Even Mrs. M's favorite human, postmistress Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen, bored by politics, can sense the dangerous anger brewing in some of Crozet's most prominent citizens.
Local tensions are set aside for the day when the gangincluding Mrs. Murphy, Pewter, and Tucker the corgiassembles for the reenactment of the battle of Oak Ridge. But when the smoke finally clears, someone is lying on the ground with three very real bullets in his back. While the clever tiger cat and her friends sift through clues that just don't fit together, more than a few locals fear that the ensuing scandal will force well-hidden secrets into the harsh light of day.
In the end, Mrs. Murphy's relentless tracking has consequences even she cannot imagine. When her effortsplace loved ones in danger, it takes more than a canny kitty and her team of animal sleuths to set things right again.
About the Author
Sneaky Pie Brown, a tiger cat born somewhere in Albemarle County, Virginia, was discovered by Rita Mae Brown at her local SPCA. They have collaborated on numerous Mrs. Murphy mysteries—in addition to Sneaky Pie’s Cookbook for Mystery Lovers and Sneaky Pie for President.
Read an Excerpt
The intoxicating fragrance of lilacs floated across the meadow grass. Mrs. Murphy was night hunting in and around the abandoned dependencies on old Tally Urquhart's farm, Rose Hill. Once a great estate, the farm's main part continued to be kept in pristine condition. A combination of old age plus spiraling taxes, and wages forced Thalia "Tally" Urquhart, as well as others like her, to let outlying buildings go.
A huge stone hay barn with a center aisle big enough to house four hay wagons side by side sat in the middle of small one-and-a-half-story stone houses with slate roofs. The buildings, although pockmarked by broken windows, were so well constructed they would endure despite the birds nesting in their chimneys.
The hay barn, whose supporting beams were constructed from entire tree trunks, would outlast this century and the next one as well.
The paint peeled off the stone buildings, exposing the soft gray underneath with an occasional flash of rose-gray.
The tiger cat sniffed the air; low clouds and fog were moving in fast from the west, sliding down the Blue Ridge Mountains like fudge on a sundae.
Normally Mrs. Murphy would hunt close to her own farm. Often she was accompanied by Pewter, who despite her bulk was a ferocious mouser. This evening she wanted to hunt alone. It cleared her mind. She liked to wait motionless for mice to scurry in the rotting burlap feed bags, for their tiny claws to tap against the beams in the hayloft.
Since no one paid attention to the Urquhart barns, the mousing was superb. Kernels of grain and dried corn drew the little marauders in, as did the barn itself, a splendid place in which to raise youngmice.
A moldy horse collar, left over from the late 1930s, its brass knobs green, hung on the tack-room wall, forgotten by all, the mules who wore it long gone to the Great Mule Sky.
Mrs. Murphy left off her mousing to explore the barn, constructed in the early nineteenth century. How lovely the farm must have once been. Mrs. Murphy prided herself on her knowledge of human history, something the two-legged species often overlooked in its rush to be current. Of course, she reflected, whatever is current today is out of fashion tomorrow.
The tiger cat, like most felines, took the long view.
Her particular human, Mary Minor Haristeen, or Harry, the young, pretty postmistress of Crozet, Virginia, evinced interest in history as well as in animal behavior. She read voraciously and expanded her understanding of animals by visiting Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the Marion DuPont Scott Equine Research Center in Leesburg, Virginia. Harry even studied the labels on crunchy-food bags to make certain kitty nutrition was adequate. She cared for her two cats, one dog, and three horses with love and knowledge.
The flowers continued to push up around the buildings. The lilac bushes, enormous, burst forth each spring. The sadness of the decaying old place was modified by the health of the plant life.
The cat emerged from the barn and glanced at the deepening night clouds, deciding to hurry back home before the fog got thicker. Two creeks and a medium-sized ridge were the biggest obstacles. She could traverse the four miles in an hour at a trot, faster if she ran. Mrs. Murphy could run four miles with ease. A sound foxhound could run forty miles in a day. Much as she liked running, she was glad she wasn't a foxhound, or any hound, for that matter. Mrs. Murphy liked dogs but considered them a lower species, for the most part, except for the corgi she lived with, Tucker, who was nearly the equal of a cat. Not that she'd tell Tucker that. . . . Never.
She trotted away from the magical spot and loped over the long, flat pasture, once an airstrip for Tally Urquhart in her heyday, when she had shocked the residents of central Virginia by flying airplanes. Her disregard for the formalities of marriage did the rest.
Tally Urquhart was Mim Sanburne's aunt. Mim had ascended to the rank of undisputed social leader of Crozet once her aunt had relinquished the position twenty years ago. Mrs. Murphy would giggle and say to Mim's face, "Ah, welcome to the Queen of Quite a Lot." Since Mim didn't understand cat, the grande dame wasn't insulted.
On the other side of the airfield a rolling expanse of oats just breaking through the earth's surface undulated down to the first creek.
At the creek the cat stopped. The clouds lowered; the moisture was palpable. She thought she heard a rumble. Senses razor sharp, she looked in each direction, including overhead. Owls were deadly in conditions like this.
The rumble grew closer. She climbed a tree--just in case. Out of the clouds overhead two wheels appeared. Mrs. Murphy watched as a single-engine plane touched down, bumped, then rolled toward the barn. It stopped right in front of the massive doors, a quarter of a mile away from Mrs. Murphy.
A lean figure hopped out of the plane to open the barn doors. The pilot stayed at the controls, and as the doors opened, the plane puttered into the barn. The motor was cut off. Mrs. Murphy saw two figures now, one much taller than the other. She couldn't make out their features; the collars of their trench coats were turned up and they were half turned away, dueling gusts of wind. As each human braced behind a door and rolled it shut, the heavens opened in a deluge.
A great fat splat of rain plopped right on Mrs. Murphy's head. She hated getting wet, but she waited long enough to see the two humans run down the road past the stone houses. In the far distance she thought she heard a motor turn over.
Irritated that she hadn't gone down the farm road and therefore might have missed something, she climbed down and ran flat out the entire way home. She could have stayed overnight in the Urquhart barn, but Harry would panic if she woke up and realized Mrs. Murphy wasn't asleep on the bed.
By the time she reached her own back porch forty-five minutes later, she was soaked. She pushed through the animal door and shook herself twice in the kitchen, spattering the cabinets, before walking into the bedroom.
Tucker snored on the floor at the foot of the bed. Pewter snuggled next to Harry. The portly gray cat opened one brilliant green eye as Mrs. Murphy leapt onto the bed.
"Don't sleep next to me. You're all wet."
"It was worth it."
Both eyes opened. "What'd you get?"
"Two field mice and one shrew."
"Why would I make it up?"
Pewter closed both eyes and flicked her tail over her nose. "Because you have to be the best at everything."
The tiger ignored her, crept to the head of the bed, lifted the comforter, and slid under while staying on top of the blanket. If she'd picked up all the covers and gotten on the sheets, Harry might have rolled over and felt the wet sheets and the wet cat. Mrs. Murphy was better off in the middle; and she would dry faster that way, too.
Pewter said nothing but she heard a muffled "Hee-hee," before falling asleep again.
Table of Contents
On Tuesday, April 27th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Rita Mae Brown to discuss CAT ON THE SCENT.
Moderator: Welcome, Rita Mae Brown! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening to chat about your new book CAT ON THE SCENT. How are you doing today?
Rita Mae Brown: I'm doing great. It's a perfect day!
Meaghan from Oregon: How big of a role did Sneaky Pie have in the authorship of this book? Do you two ever have editorial conflicts?
Rita Mae Brown: Well, she writes them, so she has the biggest role. And since she has claws and sharp teeth -- I do what she tells me! There are no conflicts!
Dave from Brooklyn: What was your major inspiration in writing this book?
Rita Mae Brown: That the cat demands tuna and catnip! She's a greedy bitch...
Maria from Indianapolis, IN: I think the illustrator of CAT ON THE SCENT is different from that of your past Mrs. Murphy books. Why did you switch? Also, how much of a say do you have in the illustrations?
Rita Mae Brown: Those decisions are all made by the art department at Bantam. They're polite and ask me what I think, but that's the art director's bailiwick.
Jen from Jersey City, NJ: I read somewhere that Sneaky Pie has written her own cookbook. When can we expect to see this, and what kind of recipes are inside? Whose idea was the cookbook?
Rita Mae Brown: It will be out in May. It was Sneaky's idea, because she simply can't get enough attention. And there are recipes for humans, cats, dogs, and horses.
Michele from Chelsea: No question. I just wanted to say that I love the movie that came out about the books, with Ricki Lake in it.
Rita Mae Brown: Sneaky says, why do you even pay attention to Ricki Lake? It's the cat that's important! But she's glad you liked the movie.
Halley from Wisconsin: What do you think of the Wonderful World of Disney adaptation of Mrs. Murphy? Did the movie ring true to your image of her (and the story)?
Rita Mae Brown: Well, Sneaky thinks the cat was almost as pretty as she is, and we thought we'd like to see a little more work on the humans. We thought the animals were perfect!
Andi from Hoboken, NJ: Are Tucker the corgi or Pewter the plump cat based on real creatures?
Rita Mae Brown: Yes, I'm looking at them! They let Sneaky do all the work, but they're happy for all the attention they get! They're both a little lazy in that respect...
Michelle from Dallas: Rita: Three words..."Slumber Party Massacre"! How fun was that? I saw that movie probably not long after I read RUBYFRUIT JUNGLE for the first time, around '83 or '84. Being a young (at the time) lesbian horror-film buff, it pretty much made my month to see your name in the credits for writing the film. I've always felt that we needed a film version of RUBYFRUIT. Any possibility of that happening?
Rita Mae Brown: Probably not. I don't own the rights to it, and I just think it's too hard for anyone to get off the ground. If I owned the rights, I think I could do it, but I can't even afford the rights to my own book.
Mina from Stuart, FL: I have read almost all your books, and I just think you are an excellent writer. To what do you attribute your writing style, or your freedom to try new things in your books?
Rita Mae Brown: Well, first I commend your good taste. I attribute my style to studying Greek and Latin in high school and then college. And because I have such a sound basis, because I really did my homework, that's why I'm so free. Thank you for praising me!
Barbara from Grand Rapids: I must have missed the movie with Ms. Lake. What is the title? Did it play in theaters?
Rita Mae Brown: It was a Disney Movie of the Week. I think it aired somewhere between the 15th and the 20th of December (maybe the 18th.). The title was, I think, "Murder, She Purred" or something like that. I don't remember because it was different from my title. It did very well, and we're very happy.
Ursula from Austin, TX: Do you ever teach writing? Will you be appearing at any writers' conferences this summer?
Rita Mae Brown: Occasionally I teach writing if someone gets sick at a college. But usually my schedule is such that I just can't. No, I won't be doing any conferences this summer -- I just did my last conference this weekend, in the Berkshires. We have an Internet address: wwww.ritamaebrown.com, and if you check that, you can see what my schedule is.
Terry from Seattle: I haven't read this one yet.... Does Harry get a love life yet? Fair or Blair?
Rita Mae Brown: No, but she's going to get a love life in the future ones, and it will be a surprise! Anything worth having is worth waiting for...
Jane from NC: Hi, Rita! How are things going on your farm? Could you tell us a bit about it?
Rita Mae Brown: It's greening up because of spring. The dogwood is blooming, and it's 430 acres. I rent another 180, and it's a lot of work, but I love it.
Marie from Georgia: How do you best get perspective on the points of view of your animal characters? Do you ever have a difficult time writing like a cat?
Rita Mae Brown: Well, since the cat tells me, of course not! No, I don't have any trouble with the animal perspective. They just give me orders, and I march!
Chris from Houston, TX: In the transcript of your last chat on barnesandnoble.com, you said that you were dissatisfied with the books out there that handled a homosexual awakening and were still fun. Have you found any recent releases that you could recommend?
Rita Mae Brown: I'm not sure I understand that question. Nothing jumps to mind. I mean, I know there are some gay mysteries that are lots of fun.... There are a couple of people doing it, and I think they're a lot of fun! I'm just blanking out on their names, and I apologize.
Genevieve from NYC: Have you written any screenplays lately? Anything we should watch for?
Rita Mae Brown: I did a documentary on Mary Pickford, but I don't think it has an airdate yet. And I'm currently working on a screenplay, but you never know if these things will see the light of day. You just do 'em and pray. The one I'm working on right now is called "The Hunt Ball."
Michele from Chelsea: Are you ever going to do book signings in Boston?
Rita Mae Brown: Yes, but the thing is I never know when. I never know what my publisher will send me for, but usually about once every two years I go there. And I'll be at a fundraiser for the Fenway Community Center this Sunday in Boston. So if you call the Fenway Community Center, they can tell you where it is.
Jana from Binghamton, NY: Have you always been a writer? How did you get your start? Do you have any advice for us soon (or not-so-soon)-to-be writers out there?
Rita Mae Brown: Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. I got my start in the anti-war movement, in the underground newspapers. And the best thing you can do is to learn Latin.
Michelle from Dallas: Well, when I get rich, I will buy the rights to RUBYFRUIT JUNGLE so that we can make the movie. [grins] In the meantime, I would just like to thank you for RUBYFRUIT JUNGLE, SIX OF ONE, SUDDEN DEATH, and IN HER DAY, specifically. They were an immense help to me as a teenager. Growing up would've been much more difficult without your novels.
Rita Mae Brown: I'll pray for your wealth nightly.
Pac87@aol.com: Are you a fan of Lilian Jackson Braun's commercially successful The Cat Who... series?
Rita Mae Brown: I've never read 'em, but they must be very good, I'm sure.
Anna from Chicago: What is the origin of Sneaky Pie's name?
Rita Mae Brown: It's an old southern expression. When somebody gets one over on you or fools you, and it's funny -- it's not like they've done this in a bad way -- you'd say, "You old sneaky pie!"
Betsy from Los Angeles: I read that you were planning to write a book with a male main character who was just turning 30. In your last chat, you said that book was about four years off. Have you any idea what it will be about? Have you started working on it? What about this character intrigues you?
Rita Mae Brown: I'm making notes. I'll probably start it next year. What intrigues me about it is that he encounters a crisis that's not of his own making. He inherits this terrible problem, which he's told on his 30th birthday, and trying to solve the problem makes a man out of him. People who come into their own, who mature, fascinate me.
Elke from Pennsylvania: I loved your novels like RUBYFRUIT JUNGLE and VENUS ENVY. Do you think you will write any more novels with such strong lesbian characters?
Rita Mae Brown: Yes. I'm working on one now, which will probably be published in 2002.
Nan from Michigan: I loved RITA WILL! Can we expect any more nonfiction from you in the future?
Rita Mae Brown: Not if I can help it! I much prefer writing fiction...
Terry from Seattle: Just wanted to say that RIDING SHOTGUN is one of the best novels ever. Such wonderful insights on the human condition from the historical perspective. Why 1699?
Rita Mae Brown: Because it was a big turning point. People were going from one century to another. And because we were just beginning to see slavery catch on in the colonies. They hadn't really been importing a lot of them yet, but it just started. And of course, reading the book with hindsight, we know what will come of it. And I hope you foxhunt, or learn how.
Elliott from Brooklyn, NY: You have written such a vast array and wide variety of books -- what has been the most interesting experiment for you lately? What would you like to try next?
Rita Mae Brown: The interesting experiment for me lately is a book I'm working on that we won't see until 2002, but it's a book about betrayal, which is an issue that haunts me, but I've never written about it. So this is my chance.
Megan from barnesandnoble.com: Do you have any books you have been saving to read this summer?
Rita Mae Brown: Yes, Mr. Ferguson's THE PITY OF WAR. I read military history all the time, and I have a biography of Frederick the Great that I'm waiting to arrive from England; it's not printed in the United States yet. So those are what I'm waiting for, getting ready to get to, and excited about.
Naomi from Bennington, VT: Will you be involved in any readings or events for Gay Pride Month? I love all your work...
Rita Mae Brown: Well, I just finished a big conference in the Berkshires, and I think that's it for now. Now, next year, I don't know, I think there's supposed to be a big march on Washington and all that kind of stuff, and I suppose I will join in if I am asked. As I'm speaking to you, the biggest blue jay just swooped down on one of my kitties!
Willem from Boston, MA: I read that you were a classics major in college. How does this influence your writing today? Do you return to read the classics still?
Rita Mae Brown: Yes, I return to read the classics. I don't think one can learn to live a literate life without doing that. It gave me a solid basis in Western literature. It gave me a grasp of language by having the Latin and the Greek, and above all, it gave me discipline.
Bertram from Middlebury, MA: You must learn such interesting things while writing your books -- it must get mind-boggling to write from a cat's perspective! What is the most surprising thing you have learned in writing your books?
Rita Mae Brown: That according to Sneaky Pie, God is a cat! I love the research -- I mean, you only use 10 percent of your research, but that's just one of the best parts of being a writer.
DeAnne from Phoenix: Since I'm planning to write a biography of my great-aunt, I asked my mother to keep an eye out for well-written biographies by and about women. Friday, Mom sent RITA WILL, which has had me laughing out loud on the exercise bike at the gym. Thanks for making the hours fly by so delightfully! Will you recommend any (auto)biographies for my reading list?
Rita Mae Brown: The biography of -- Clare Tomlinson, the British writer, did a marvelous biography of Trollope. And there's a marvelous biography of Gladstone. They're two of the best-written biographies I think I've read in recent years. I don't know what your tastes are, but Douglas Southall Freeman wrote four volumes on Robert E. Lee decades ago, and they're still the standard. There's an awful lot of good biography out there, there really is. I think Clare Tomlinson just did one on Jane Austen. You can look it up on this site, but I think she just completed one...
Kadima from Montreal: I loved CAT ON THE SCENT. What are your plans for your next book?
Rita Mae Brown: Sneaky's done it already, and it's Harry's 20th high school reunion, and she thinks that she's very clever, and it will be released next year, in the spring, when all her books are released.
Terry from Seattle: What is exciting to you about the 21st century?
Rita Mae Brown: What's exciting to me about the 21st century is that maybe humankind will learn violence solves very little. That's my hope.
Peggy from Los Angeles: Would the betrayal book have anything to do with Martina? And will you be doing any book signings in the southern California area?
Rita Mae Brown: Actually, no, it's not at all about Martina. It's about two women who meet in college and become friends. And no, I don't have any signings planned -- again it's up to my publisher, and maybe they'll send me there next year to promote my next book. They kind of pick areas to send you to, and do it by region. I miss California!
Terry from Lakeland, FL: I love reading your books; it's like getting together with members of my family. Please keep it up.
Rita Mae Brown: It's nice to know somebody else's family is as crazy as my own!
Francine from Charleston, SC: What books have you read lately that you have enjoyed? Can you recommend anything?
Rita Mae Brown: I just finished AN EXCESS OF MADNESS -- I think that's the title -- about behavior during the Regency in England. I thought it was very well done. And I'm currently reading the diary of Mrs. Samuel Pepys, which is of course a response to Samuel Pepys's diary, which was written in the 17th century. It's very clever...
Paul from barnesandnoble.com: Hi, Rita Mae Brown. What is your ideal summer vacation?
Rita Mae Brown: That I get to write and ride, and work my hounds every single day without fail! I love my farm; I love just being on it.
Jessica from Bangor, ME: Who are some of your favorite authors writing today? Do you read any other feline mysteries?
Rita Mae Brown: No, I've never read another feline mystery, and I just don't know when I'll ever get to it. I like an awful lot of English writers. I like Clare Townsend, even though it's nonfiction, and I like the Oxford don Ferguson -- it might be Neil, but I'm not sure. I like Wally Lamb and Tom Wolfe, and I think Susan Isaacs builds a very good story, and I think that David Baldacci has an uncanny ability to write a thriller, and then it comes to pass in real life. It's eerie. But I read constantly -- it's hard to pick favorites; I just read all the time.
Moderator: Thank you, Rita Mae Brown! Best of luck with your new book, CAT ON THE SCENT. Before you leave for the evening, do you have any closing comments for the online audience?
Rita Mae Brown: Yeah! Think of what you really, truly want to do with your life and then do it, no excuses. What the mind conceives, the body achieves. That's all I have to say.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Enjoyable and light-heartedIf the humans could understand the animals what a better world this would be. Sneaky-Pie Brown could write books solo! For light-hearted reading these books are a delight. The animal characters are consistent book to book, as are the human characters. This is not to say the characters stagnate, they grow and evolve throughout the series. But for solving even the animals make mistakes sometimes. When bodies begin to show up, the animals' "Mom", "Harry" Haristeen knows something is being missed, but can't quite get it. "Mrs. Murphy" has a lot of knowledge to impart, but even she has to rethink the situation and recovers the ground. This story has a lot of twists and turns and we learn a great deal more about the wonderful characters of Crozet.
Found this at a book exchange and decided to read it because a cat was one of the characters. I loved it. Looking forward to reading all the Mrs Murphy series.
It was a good book, but the ending left a lot to be desired. I think they could have done a better job with the ending, because the rest was good.
I enjoyed this one very much, very sneaky Rita Mae Brown. I like the way you keep the reader interested and look forward to the next book. I can not believe the ending, it was great. You ought to put Harry and Fair back together. Wouldn't the fur fly then! Thanks for another great book!
I got this book at a thrift store for 99 cents,i wanted to get it on my nook so i wouldnt have to lug the hardcover around. If i have the checkout numbeer tat they scan can i get it on my nook for free?
I started reading Sneaky Pie¿s books years ago. I¿ve never been disappointed in any of them. I love how the authors blend everyday life with the extraordinary. Rita Mae Brown shows a wonderful understanding of nature, both human and non-human. I¿m should that if our cat could talk he would be as sassy as these three amigos. They have a sister relationship, I can pick on her but no one else better. Ms. Brown wrote a great scene with the bobcat to show how much love these three have for one another. The author¿s character development does not stop with the animals, the humans are very well developed too. Once again, Ms. Brown shows great insight into the human condition. Friends and family that love and ready care for each other. The author gives the reader a wonderfully pleasant town peopled by a vast and different well-developed cast of characters. Ms. Brown should be commented on her dialog too. It is fresh and witty, true to life. And so funny sometimes that the reader will laugh out loud. Oh, yes there is a murder mystery in there too. I liked the way Ms. Brown ended this particular story. Sometimes the humans don¿t get it. But, she doesn¿t leave the reader hanging, we know what has happened and that is fine with me. Reading this book is fun, who cares about the mystery? I highly recommend this book and series. I would suggest that a new reader start at the beginning. It is fun and quite rewarding to watch the characters and author develop with each book. Plus, you won¿t understand all the ¿little¿ points of the characters. So starting reading and get ready for a wild ¿ride¿ in the town of Crozet, Virginia.