Mary Kay Andrews is the queen of writing mysteries that take us to the South and often to the beach. In “The Newcomer,” we travel from New York to Treasure Island, Florida, a small beachside town near St. Petersburg. When Letty grabs her niece and flees the city, she heads south. In the bottom of her sister’s go-bag is an article, “Florida’s Hidden Gems: Four Family Motels You’ll Want to Discover,” and one in particular is circled, The Murmuring Surf Motel. That’s where Letty and Maya go because Letty is determined to fulfill the promise she made her sister. Her sister had worried that her ex-boyfriend would kill her. She made Letty promise that if anything happened to her, Letty would take the go-bag and Maya and flee.
While Letty and her sister, Tanya, had a roller-coaster relationship, Letty loves her niece and will do anything to protect the four-year-old. But the Murmuring Surf Motel is filled with senior citizens who aren’t thrilled with the newcomers. These are people who have visited the hotel for decades, and they don’t do well with change. There is also the fact that when the pair arrive, there are no vacancies. But Letty lets Maya work her charming magic, and Ava, the owner of the motel, decides that if they can clean up the storage room, they can stay there.
In the meantime, Letty is wanted for the kidnapping of her niece, and Tanya’s ex-boyfriend, who is also Maya’s father, is worried that Letty knows too much about his shady business dealings. Ava’s handsome son is the local detective, and he’s around far too much and asks too many questions, in Letty’s opinion. She tries to keep her head low while also searching for clues about what really happened to her sister.
As with all of Andrews’ novels, we are hooked from the first page. The descriptions of the setting draw us in, especially those of us who have vacationed in Florida. We can hear the car bumping over the oyster-shell driveway, and we can see the “yellowing fronds of a huge palm tree.” We can also picture the motel, small and modest, with its sign that features “neon-blue waves, waving green palms and pink lettering” that flashes on and off.
Although the story is mostly told from Letty’s point of view, we also fall just a bit in love with Joe, Ava’s son. He’s honest and caring, and although he knows that Letty is on the run, he’s not willing to turn her in. And then there’s Letty, a truly admirable character. She’s had a rough life with an uncaring mother who basically left Letty and Tanya to raise themselves. There was no college, no career track, and the only caring people in their lives were their grandparents, who lived halfway across the country. Letty’s life had been struggling to pay for an apartment in NYC by waitressing and finding other jobs after an unsuccessful attempt to make it in acting. But in spite of her humble beginnings and her lack of an education, she is determined to make it on her own. She makes it quite clear that she doesn’t need rescuing by anyone and that she can stand on her own two feet.
Andrews also presents us with two suspects who might have murdered the flighty, slightly amoral Tanya, who was arrested in Florida for helping two men con senior citizens out of their antiques and jewelry. Tanya, who was determined to make her ex-boyfriend Evan pay for everything she wanted. Tanya, who—although unlikable—didn’t deserve to die.
You’ll find you really want to know who did the dirty deed and you’ll want to know if Letty gets a happy-ever-after. You’ll enjoy meeting the realistic, quirky, sometimes curmudgeonly senior citizens who inhabit the motel and who eventually become the family that Letty and Maya lack. It’s a mystery, a romance, and a paean to the small family motels that are disappearing from the Florida coast and being replaced by high rises that have no character and no charm. Take a break this summer and travel through the pages to the coast. You’ll feel the salty breeze in your face and vicariously enjoy the breathtaking sunsets over the gulf. It’s a trip worth taking.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.