Atlanta author Mary Kay Andrews was a fifth grader in St. Petersburg, Florida when Atlanta C&S bank secretary Mary Shotwell Little vanished without a trace from the parking lot of Lenox Square Mall in Buckhead. Andrews and her sisters knew the South’s largest covered mall well. Each summer on the way to family vacation in North Carolina, the family stopped off at Lenox Square so the girls could go shopping at Rich’s.
For Atlanta Police, Little’s disappearance became one of the city’s biggest unsolved mysteries. Married for just six weeks when she disappeared in October of 1965, Little had bought supplies for a weekend dinner party at the mall’s Colonial grocery store and had met a co-worker for dinner at S&S Cafeteria before saying goodnight to her and walking to her car around 8 p.m.
Little’s 1965 Mercury Comet was found the next day in the mall parking lot, unoccupied, with groceries still in the backseat, blood stains and most oddly, folded women’s undergarments sitting on the console between the front seats.
“The case was such an anomaly,” says Andrews. “The fact that she just vanished really intrigued me. And at a safe and crowded place Lenox Square mall? Plus, there were never any real credible sightings of her. She just disappeared into thin air.”
When she required a juicy subplot for her latest novel, “Sunset Beach” hitting stores today, Andrews’ decades-long fascination with the case re-emerged, following a conversation with an old cop buddy, Mickey Lloyd, a retired Atlanta homicide captain.
“Mickey had worked some aspects of the case after it had become a cold case,” says Andrews. “I was talking police procedure with him for the new novel when he mentioned that one of the problems with the Little case was that the entire case file had disappeared. That set off an alarm in my brain that said, ‘Hey, I can use that!’”
In the St. Pete-set “Sunset Beach,” the cold case inspired by Mary Shotwell Little is moved forward in time and set in the summer of 1976 and focuses on Colleen Boardman Hicks, a nurse trapped in an abusive marriage who is plotting a way out.
“Colleen isn’t Mary Shotwell Little,” says Andrews. “For one thing, I made Colleen a bad girl which was a lot of fun to write. But I used other key details from the Little case. Atlanta police always suspected her husband but they couldn’t prove anything. His behavior was off. I mean, when your wife disappears and all you’re concerned about is when you get your car back? That could be considered a little suspicious.”
Andrews says that normally she would have avoided inserting another plot complication into one of her novels but the Little disappearance proved irresistible. “Let’s face it, my plots are complicated enough as it is,” concedes the writer. “But I knew my heroine Drue Campbell’s father was a St. Pete cop before he had gone to law school and become an ambulance chaser. All the pieces fit.”
Other details from the Little case also find their way into “Sunset Beach,” including the aforementioned mystery women’s underwear and those bloodstains.
The novel’s grisly plot details won’t surprise the longtime friends of Andrews’ who knew her back when she was a cop reporter in Savannah and Marietta and later as a AJC Features reporter, writing under the byline of Kathy Hogan Trocheck. She covered the Jim Williams case in Savannah, which was later immortalized by John Berendt’s bestselling “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and a subsequent film shot on location by director Clint Eastwood.
Atlanta Police never gave up on trying to solve the Little case and in the late 1980s, Trocheck wrote about the ongoing public fascination with the unsolved mystery for the AJC, around the time, when acting on a tip, police jackhammered up a North Georgia automotive repair garage’s floor looking for Little’s body reported to be buried beneath. The story put the reporter in touch with Jack Perry, one of the original homicide detectives assigned to the case. “Most cops I’ve spoken with always have those one or two unsolved cases that haunt them,” says Andrews. “I have to think that for Jack Perry, the Mary Shotwell Little case had to be one of those cases.”
And just like in “Sunset Beach,” perhaps not coincidentally, the real-life Little case file was discovered missing from the APD evidence room shortly after Perry retired from the force.
But unlike Atlanta’s lingering Mary Shotwell Little mystery, “Sunset Beach” readers will be rewarded with a resolution in the final pages of Andrews’ latest page turner.
Even as Andrews sets out this month for a lengthy author tour of the southeast, greeting readers and signing copies of “Sunset Beach,” her 2020 book manuscript beckons to her each morning from her computer screen. Her heroine is a newspaper reporter who is trying to navigate family drama while dodging the avalanche of changes happening in the 2019 newspaper business.
For some of us, the novel is set to open on a scene we know all too well these days — a going away party at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Dunwoody offices.
But unlike her problem-riddled protagonists, now 17 books into her literary career as Mary Kay Andrews, the New York Times bestselling author only has one dire concern these days.
Quips Andrews: “’Sunset Beach’ is set in St. Pete. My next book is set on the Alabama Gulf Coast. I’m running out of beaches. After that, I might have to go to the Caribbean!”
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.