Mary Kay Andrews doesn't mind a bit if you call her novels "beach books."
"They've given me a great life and I'm proud of them," she said. "A beach book lets you escape to someplace else. It has characters you can root for. It's a page-turner."
And readers love beach books. Andrews' latest, published in May, debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times fiction bestseller lists. It's called Sunset Beach, and if that title rings a bell, it should.
Relaxing in the Hollander Hotel's Tap Room in St. Petersburg before a signing in May at Mastry's Bar, Andrews said, "I wanted to set a book in my hometown. It's my valentine."
Just how local is she?
"My parents met at the Coliseum and were married six weeks later. I was born at MacDill. I grew up on the Pink Streets and went to Lakewood High School."
Back then her name was Kathy Hogan. She married her high school sweetheart, Tom Trocheck; they have two children and two grandchildren. While she was being interviewed, he was at Mastry's setting up chairs for the book signing.
Andrews did leave town to get a journalism degree from the University of Georgia.
"I was always going to be a writer," she said. "As a teenager, I had a summer job working in classified ads at the St. Petersburg Times. I worked at two newspapers that are gone now, the Clearwater Sun and the Evening Independent."
She was a reporter for 14 years, the last 10 at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"I always say I didn't leave journalism. Journalism left me. I sort of saw what was coming."
Andrews, 64, had grown up reading mysteries.
"My grandfather loved pulp fiction. He would bring me an A&P bag full of books. When I was 10 years old I was reading Erle Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane — and Nancy Drew, of course."
Writing as Kathy Hogan Trocheck, she turned in her first mystery novel, Every Crooked Nanny, to her publisher in February 1991 and left her job at the Journal-Constitution that May.
"I had a two-book contract with HarperCollins. We had two kids and two mortgages. So it was a big leap."
Every Crooked Nanny became the first of eight books about cop-turned-housekeeper-turned-private-detective Callahan Garrity. She also wrote a couple of novels about a character named Truman Kicklighter, "this cranky old man in St. Petersburg who hung out at Derby Lane."
"My sales were good, but I had an idea for something different," Andrews said, so she wrote a novel called Savannah Blues.
"I thought Savannah Blues would be a straight mystery, but I had a new agent who suggested submitting it under a pseudonym." She came up with Mary Kay Andrews by combining the names of her kids.
Published in 2002, Savannah Blues "outsold all my Callahan books combined right off the bat. It was not marketed as a mystery. This was around the time that Bridget Jones's Diary was such a hit and everybody wanted chick lit."
She dislikes that term, but she's happier with beach book, and it's a genre that has been good to her. Sunset Beach is her 26th novel; she has also published a couple of Christmas novellas and a cookbook.
Even though her novels aren't marketed as mysteries now, she said, "If there wasn't a body, there was always some kind of mystery."
There is a body in Sunset Beach, and this time she brings the story home. The book's present-day plot centers on Drue Campbell, a St. Petersburg native whose parents divorced when she was a teen. She moved to Fort Lauderdale with her mother, while her police officer father, Brice Campbell, became a successful personal-injury lawyer in St. Petersburg.
After her mother's death and her own kiteboarding injury, Drue, in her 30s and adrift, returns when her dad offers her a job at his law firm. There she works the phone banks and puts up with the her mean-girl stepmother, Wendy — who was her best friend in grade school.
Drue takes solace in rehabbing a rundown little cottage on Sunset Beach that she inherited from her mom. She has warm memories of staying there during childhood summers with her grandparents. When she's not making repairs, she investigates a case her father seems to have flubbed involving the unsolved murder of a housekeeper at a nearby beach resort.
But, Andrews said, writing about today's beach wasn't enough.
"I wanted to go back to the '70s, when I was a teenager, to the St. Pete of my youth. I wanted to write about Maas Brothers, Munch's, Mastry's. I wanted to write about the beach of our teen years. The Don CeSar was closed and boarded up. That's where we went parking."
As a reporter, she said, "I always liked to look up old murder cases." One that caught her attention was the 1966 disappearance of a young Atlanta woman, Mary Shotwell Little. "She had dinner with a friend at Lennox, which was just a shopping center then, and was never seen again.
"When I heard that the case file disappeared, I was like, ding ding ding ding ding. I didn't really need a second plot (for Sunset Beach), but it was too good to resist."
She fictionalized Little's disappearance into a story about a character named Colleen Boardman Hicks, whose story is told in chapters that flash back to St. Petersburg in the 1970s, when Drue's father and his police partner become involved in her case.
In addition to all those delicious hometown details, the novel offers lots of humor, a little romance, engaging characters and a suspenseful plot. It gets a little dark in places, too. As Andrews said, "To me Sunset Beach always had a noir feeling."
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
By Mary Kay Andrews
St. Martin's Press, 424 pages, $28.99