"The Newcomer" by Mary Kay Andrews; St. Martin’s Press (448 pages, $28.99)
On the rare occasions that I’m driving on the Pinellas barrier islands and spot an OG beach motel — those low-slung, cozy, pastel-painted relics tucked in among the towering condos and raucous bars — I feel a little warm tug of nostalgia for the funky, friendly places I remember.
Mary Kay Andrews’ imagination works differently. Give her a mom ’n’ pop beach motel and she’ll give you fugitives and scam artists, snowbirds in bloody battle over their pecking order, maybe even murder and mayhem along with the sparkling sands and swaying hibiscus.
Season that with some steamy romance and plenty of humor, and you have a made-to-order beach read like "The Newcomer," Andrews’ latest bound-for-the-bestseller-list novel. Is it a coincidence that Mother’s Day (May 9, so you need to get her a gift; you’re welcome) is just before beach-read season? I think not.
For Tampa Bay area readers, the cherry on top of "The Newcomer" is the local setting: Treasure Island.
Andrews knows the turf, and the surf. The St. Petersburg native was known as Kathy Hogan when she was growing up here. She lives in Atlanta and Tybee Island, Georgia, now but has set a number of her 24 books in Florida. In "The Newcomer," the local details include beer from 3 Daughters Brewing and a meeting at Ka’Tiki.
The newcomer of the title is 33-year-old Letty Carnahan, who arrives at the Murmuring Surf on Treasure Island in the middle of the night with no reservations, a few clothes, a tote bag full of a suspicious amount of money and her 4-year-old niece, Maya.
Letty has driven there, pedal to the metal, from New York City after discovering her younger sister, Tanya, murdered in her posh Upper West Side brownstone. In the weeks before her death, Tanya had told Letty that she feared her ex-boyfriend, Maya’s father, might react violently to their custody battle. Tanya made Letty promise that if anything happened, she would take Maya (and a stash of cash hidden in Tanya’s closet) and run.
So that’s what Letty has done, but she is totally out of her depth. She’s an aspiring actor, which means she’s spent a lot of time waiting tables, but the closest she’s come to crime is a bit part on "Law & Order."
Tracking news about Tanya’s death online, she knows the police are looking for her and Maya, and that the ex, shady real estate mogul Evan Wingfield, is blaming Letty for Tanya’s murder.
Letty knows all too well that Evan has resources that make him a threat. Before he and Tanya fell in love at first sight, Letty was his sometime girlfriend and the full-time concierge for his growing empire of illegal AirBnB units in Manhattan. Evan’s finances are sketchy, and some of his associates, such as a housing inspector named Vikki Hill he’s been bribing generously, are questionable.
Letty has made a beeline for the Murmuring Surf because Tanya had ripped out a magazine page with a story about the place. Letty doesn’t know why her sister kept it, but in her panic, it’s the only target she can think of.
Her first reception isn’t auspicious. Having pulled into the parking lot before dawn, Letty and Maya are fast asleep in their car when a young man in a police uniform, “very tan, very judgey,” knocks on the window and tells them to scram.
They get a warmer greeting from the motel’s owner, Ava, who is soon smitten with Maya’s big blue long-lashed eyes. The motel is full, but she offers Letty an efficiency unit used for storage if she’s willing to clean out a stack of old mattresses and disused toilets.
Letty has a ferocious work ethic, and that and Maya’s charms lead Ava to offer Letty a job, which she sorely needs. Soon she’s helping to update the motel’s website and fielding the constant demands of its longtime regulars, seniors from colder states who return every year and scrap with each other over shuffleboard court time and who gets which ocean-view unit when another guest has a heart attack and has to go home to Ohio early.
Sometimes Letty finds herself wishing her schedule was as light as the snowbirds’. She adores Maya, but she’s never parented a 4-year-old before and is sometimes overwhelmed.
She’s also sorting out her feelings about that officious cop, who turns out to be Ava’s son, Joe. He grew up at the motel and is now a detective on the local force, which means she can’t exactly fill him in about the real reasons she’s there, even as his frost turns to flirtation.
Meanwhile, Letty is uncovering Tanya’s links to the Murmuring Surf. They are shocking — and just might have something to do with her murder.
Andrews keeps the surprises coming and, as usual, creates warmly drawn characters as well as a few creepy villains. She also tucks in enough vivid, funny details about life at the Murmuring Surf that you might find yourself keeping an eye out for it the next time you drive down Treasure Island. Maybe there’s a vacancy.