‘Footprints in the Sand’: murder in Sarasota

The third entry in Mary Jane Clark’s series of mysteries about a New York actress-turned-cake decorator, “Footprints in the Sand” (William Morrow), is another winning combination of expert whodunit plotting and strong characterization.

Clark is a master of the traditional mystery, a genre which is sometimes referred to as semi-derisively as “cozies,” a label that doesn’t really fit the smart and often disturbing work produced by the heirs to Agatha Christie.

I’ve tried to stop using the “cozy” tag ever since a long lunch at a St. Louis mystery writers convention where the great crime writer Carolyn Hart pointed out that a murder among friends and family, or within a peaceful small community, is in some ways more horrifying than someone being gunned down by a stranger in an urban alley in a “hardboiled” crime story.

What could be worse than the knowledge that some you know is capable of violence?
The murders in “Footprints in the Sand” are connected with that happiest of events — a wedding — in a beautiful private beach resort in Sarasota, Florida.

Piper and her parents fly down from the New York City metro area to attend the wedding of Piper’s cousin who is still recovering from beloved father’s death.

Before the Donovans arrive, a young woman who works for the owner of the resort has already been missing for a few days, but her friends and coworkers assume — hope — there’s a logical explanation for her being out of touch.

Clark sets the scene beautifully and makes the Amish community of Sarasota — who knew? — an integral part of the mystery.

Like Carolyn Hart, Clark gives us a tantalizingly long list of suspects — all with a good motive for doing away with the assistant to the resort owner — and adds a few new victims on the way to the final chapters.

Clark never trivializes murder by turning violent crime into simple plot mechanics — we feel each death along the way and the murders take on tragic dimensions because we come to know and like the victims.

“Footprints in the Sand” builds such strong suspense that I happily polished it off in two sittings.

Joe Meyers