"HISS OF DEATH: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery," by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown, Bantam Books, $26, 217 pages (f)

Harry Haristeen, Susan Tucker, BoomBoom Craycroft and others are back in "Hiss of Death," by Rita Mae Brown — the latest book in her Mrs. Murphy mystery series. Reminiscent of "Steel Magnolias," in the sense that a group of strong Southern women support each other through difficult times, this story is a well-written murder mystery that keeps you wondering "who did it?" to the end.

Along with trying to help Harry figure out who the murderer is, readers will learn a little about cars, horses, cats, dogs, farm life and breast cancer as well as a lot about life and death in the small Virginia towns of Crozet and Charlottesville. This particular mystery revolves around a health crisis that doesn't have consistent symptoms or clues.

"I try to make the people in my books be as real to life as possible," Brown said in a recent telephone interview. "I think about their opinions. Some can be succinct; others are not."

Some of the characters in "Hiss of Death" have a soapbox and do go on and on and on with their opinions on social and political issues. Some of them drink socially and swear. "Some characters in my stories who have a soapbox make me laugh but make some readers want to turn the pages fast," Brown said.

"I don't regard literature as propaganda," she said. "I just put out what I observe and see what happens."

Born and raised on a farm in Virginia, Brown currently farms 580 acres, raising timber, hay and 40 horses along with 70 fox hounds, 16 basset hounds and of course, her famous cat and co-author, Sneaky Pie.

"It's what I know and love," she said.

Although the main human character in "Hiss of Death," 40-year-old Mary "Harry" Minor Haristeen, is female and a Virginia farmer, Brown says the only other things she has in common with Harry are a love of animals and history.

Sneaky Pie, a real cat, is pictured on the back dust cover of "Hiss of Death." The name comes from an old Southern expression "you sneaky pie," and indicates someone has put something over on you.

The Mrs. Murphy series, begun in 1988 during a Hollywood writers guild strike, was born of necessity.

"I disdained mysteries and romance novels," Brown said. But she needed to pay the bills, and cats were in. The success of the mystery series might be called a "sneaky pie" on Brown.

If you go...

What: Rita Mae Brown reading and book signing

When: Tuesday, April 12, 7 p.m.

Where:The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City

Web: kingsenglish.com

Rosemarie Howard currently lives in a 100-year old house on Main Street, Springville. She recently finished work on a documentary for BYU-TV titled, "Wei, MinZhi: Daughter of Miracles."