“Sunset Beach,” by Mary Kay Andrews

Mary Kay Andrews

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Bestselling author Mary Kay Andrews (aka Kathy Hogan Trocheck) created her successful second career by writing books with strong, displaced women who reinvent themselves in the face of struggle. Along with her trademark compelling female protagonists, the books written under the Mary Kay Andrews pen name also feature complicated kith and kin relationships, a sensitivity to diversity, sly humor, sweet romance, and a strong sense of place, usually on or near a beach. Andrews consistently displays a remarkable talent for the surprise twist; her books are replete with old-fashioned Southern charm and class: sipping cool lemonade in a rattan chair on a warm, sunny day at the beach, for instance.

Hence, it should not surprise her fans that her latest release, Sunset Beach, features a strong woman on the verge of hardscrabble reinvention, plenty of sun and the beach, a subtle yet budding romance, a diverse and compelling cast of characters, a hint of humor and a handful of danger, and not one but two mysteries. And, yes, in typical Andrews style, there are a couple of “gotcha!” surprises at the end.  In other words, Sunset Beach is a grand addition to the growing Andrews collection, a compelling read, and a downright pleasure.

While Andrews describes her books as “women’s fiction with a Southern and beach vibe,” her early works, published under her real name, were mysteries. However, she decided to switch styles and adopted her pseudonym to mark her new direction. Changing course in her Andrews books, Trocheck was dubbed the “Queen of the Beach Read.” These books trend towards women’s fiction and romance.

Against the “beach-read” label—with its connotation of shallow fiction—Sunset Beach’s depth and plot twists rise to the highest level of mystery writing. Trocheck’s vivid characterizations, complex plotting, deft interlacing of clues, action, and back story, and steady building of suspense are every bit as good as those of Margaret Maron and the late Sue Grafton.

Unlike Grafton and Maron’s work, however, Sunset Beach is something of a “cozy mystery,” as are the other Andrews mysteries. They feature an amateur sleuth who goodheartedly stumbles into crime solving, and the story is character-driven rather than action-driven. Romance figures in the story, but doesn’t override the mystery. And like any well done cozy, Sunset Beach saves readers from graphic gory details while maintaining tension and suspense.

Cozy gloss and all, Sunset Beach is a complicated tale, rife with both family and criminal conflicts. As for the crimes, first there’s the two-year-old unsolved murder of a hotel maid; then there’s the decades-old cold case of a missing dental hygienist (based upon a real-life mystery in Atlanta, where Trocheck lives with her husband). Each unsolved case links back to a successful yet flawed, handsome though aging plaintiff’s lawyer, Brice Campbell, a one-time police officer.

Brice is key to the story, but the star is his daughter, thirty-something Drue Campell, a down-on-her-luck, recently fired bar maid recovering from a severe injury to her knee after a kiteboarding accident and busted romance. She has little to her name but a junk car and, now, unused kiteboarding equipment. To make matters worse, Drue is wheeling from the recent death of her beloved mom. After her mother’s passing, Drue has no family left except Brice. But they don’t get along—and haven’t since Brice and Drue’s mother divorced and Brice and his second wife kicked the then-rebellious teen Drue out of their home.

Brice has the decency to seek out Drue after her mother’s death. He wants to rebuild their relationship despite Drue’s hostility. Brice has news: with her mother’s passing, Drue now owns a beat-up beach front cottage on Sunset Beach in St. Petersburg, Florida. It needs work, a lot of work, but it’s all Drue’s, mortgage free and filled with sweet memories of her times spent there as a child.

To top it off, Brice offers Drue a job at his law firm. She’s not sure she can take the job. She’s even less sure when she finds out that Brice has married his third wife, Wendy, many years his junior and Drue’s one-time best friend.

Financial need trumps Drue’s reluctance as she desperately needs a job, so she signs on. From the first moments in the law office, she and Wendy and Brice are at odds with each other. Soon, Drue, as a case screener and some-time receptionist in the firm, meets the mother and young child of a murdered hotel maid. The mother accuses Brice of cheating her and her granddaughter with a lowball settlement in the wrongful death case arising from the dead woman’s unsolved killing. Drue is moved by her sympathy for the two survivors, especially the sweetly captivating child, and begs Brice to help them. But Brice warns her that the wrongful death case is closed, albeit with an inadequate settlement, and he swears there is nothing he can do. Wendy orders Drue to stay away from the two survivors, but Drue befriends the child and her bitter grandmother.

Making matters more complicated still, Drue discovers a cold case police file and a collection of newspaper clippings in the attic of her beach house, matters all related to a woman who disappeared decades before. Drue doesn’t know who put the materials there, or why, but Brice seems to be in the thick of things.

Uneasy and suspicious of her father, Drue sets out to investigate both cases. With two of the “cube rats” from the law firm, Ben and Jonas, and a short, testy police detective helping (or hindering) Drue, she delves deeper into the murdered hotel maid’s case. Jonas seeks a “do-over” in his relationship with Drue and tries to romance her. Drue, tempted, remains cautious. As seemingly unrelated clues coalesce, the danger escalates and someone threatens Drue’s life as she gets closer to the truth.

While there’s no shortage of cozy mysteries dealing with inherited houses that come with secrets in the attic, this one has enough innovative twists and turns to seem original and to captivate readers. Trocheck’s writing is clear and crisp—a style perhaps honed in her first career as a reporter with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her rich imagination and descriptive voice shine here. And, for a non-lawyer, Trocheck gets the ins and outs of a plaintiff’s personal injury law firm.

One thing that makes this story work is Drue. As the main character, she grabs center stage and holds it. In her mid-thirties, this woman must back up and start over, but she doesn’t let physical injury or emotional wounds deter her from her goal—to help the mother and child of a murdered hotel maid find justice.

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