Siesta Key seems somehow both more alluring and more dangerous in the hands of mystery writer Mary Jane Clark.
Her latest Piper Donovan mystery, "Footprints in the Sand" (William Morrow, $25.99), brings struggling actress and wedding-cake decorator Piper to Sarasota to serve as maid of honor in her cousin's wedding. When a bridesmaid goes missing, the magic of the beachfront setting evaporates.
Clark, who has been coming to Sarasota to visit family since the 1980s and finally bought a winter place on Siesta Key about eight years ago, had previously set one of her KEY News media thrillers in Sarasota, where murders happen far more frequently on the pages of novels than on the sands of Crescent Beach.
"I think it's really good if I love the place that I'm writing about," said Clark, who will be in Florida for several readings and other appearances later this month and in February. "If I like it, if I'm interested in the place, hopefully I'm able to transmit that excitement to the reader."
Clark's book takes readers off the more tourist-visible sites and ventures into the Amish and Mennonite community of Pinecraft, centered along Bahia Vista and Beneva.
"I don't think everybody who comes to Sarasota knows about Pinecraft," said Clark, whose main residence is outside Manhattan. "Certainly everybody I've talked to about it is fascinated by that whole Amish community."
"Nobody Knows," Clark's 2002 novel also set in Sarasota, focused more on the Ringling Museum of Art, the circus and hurricanes. The new novel touches on Mote Marine Laboratory and Jungle Gardens in addition to Pinecraft and the resorts along the Gulf of Mexico.
"The city has so many interesting aspects to it that it makes it a great place for the characters to act out the mystery," she said.
Clark's protagonist, Piper Donovan, is loosely based on Clark's own actress daughter Elizabeth.
"There's a lot of downtime between acting jobs and you really need to have something else creatively to do with your time, and also you need to be able to support yourself," said Clark. Piper "is not having a lot of luck in her acting career and decides she's going to come home and live with her parents for a while, and help her mother with her business, baking wedding cakes."
"Footprints in the Sand" is the third in the Piper Donovan series.
Writing a series character is "a pleasure, and a challenge," said Clark. "The pleasure of it is the more familiar you become with her, you watch the character's growth, you see how she develops and get to know her better. You have more time to get very emotionally connected to her."
Mary Jane Clark will be the guest speaker at the Friends of the Rocky Bluff Branch Library's seventh annual Author Luncheon at noon Jan. 25 at the River Wilderness Country Club, 2250 Wilderness Blvd. W., Parrish. Tickets are $35. Call 723-4821.
She also will read from and sign copies of "Footprints in the Sand" at 2 p.m. Jan. 28 at Selby Library, 1331 First St., Sarasota. 861-5000.