Scratching and clawing her way to cat novels

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Believe it or not, there's a whole pride of cat mystery writers out there. Some resurrect dead pets as protagonists, others concoct Siamese composite characters. Perhaps the most famous, Rita Mae Brown, credits a kitty named Sneaky Pie as a co-author.

The latest addition to the litter is Clea Simon, whose new cat series takes a sociological slant.

"I really am interested in a lot of cat issues, like shelter issues and overpopulation," said Simon, who is set to appear at two Baltimore book signings today. "I don't do cutesy, and my cats don't talk. I am into the real cat."

Her first mystery novel, Mew Is for Murder, explores the phenomenon of the cat hoarder. The drama begins when a young freelance writer named Theda Krakow - an aspiring reporter who very much resembles the 44-year-old Simon, only "younger, thinner and much braver" - stumbles on the corpse of an old woman in a house full of felines. Did the cat lady trip over one of her cats, Theda wonders, or was she murdered?

A freelance writer and Boston Globe radio columnist, Simon has written about hoarders before, most notably in her well-received nonfiction book, The Feline Mystique (St. Martin's Griffin, 2002), which she calls her "feminist feline manifesto." The treatise explores the cultural and historical relationship between women, cats and mystery, and shows how cats truly can offer clues to help decipher life. When she's sizing up a new boyfriend, for instance, Simon takes note of his approach to a ripening litter box:

"And so he had changed it," she writes. "I had to wonder, could this man be the love of my life?"

Simon pads Mew Is for Murder with real-world observations from the first book, she said, as well as additional field research involving her own pet cat, whom she once intentionally dropped "to see how she looked when she was startled" - as a kitty in a murder mystery would almost certainly be.

The soon-to-be-printed second in the series, Cattery Row, is about the shadow realm of show cats and kitten mills; a third installment, which has to do with animal rights, is in the works.

IF YOU GO Clea Simon appears today from noon to 2:30 p.m. at the Sisters in Crime holiday party and book sale at Mystery Loves Company, 1730 Fleet St., and from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Barnes and Noble in the Power Plant, 601 E. Pratt St.

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