PANAMA CITY — The latest series of mysteries from local author Sally Jo Pitts brings four seasons of murder and romance.
The Seasons of Mystery series from Gordian Books includes “Autumn Vindication,” “Winter Deception,” “Spring Betrayal” and “Summer Cover-up.” Each tale follows Pitts’ fictional creations, private investigators Robert Grey and Jane Carson, as they find themselves in mysteries based on the author’s own experiences — and a budding romance grows.
“Autumn Vindication,” for instance, is loosely based on an actual voter fraud case and Pitts’ experiences when she was a fledgling P.I.
“I wrote the Autumn on in 2012 and set it aside,” Pitts said. “It was about a husband and wife investigative team, but (the publisher) wasn’t interested in an older couple. I made it into a younger P.I. … He offers her a job as an intern for one year while she’s taking care of her mom’s estate.”
Pitts grew up in Ocala and moved with her husband, LaVelle Pitts, to Bay County for the first time in the 1970s. LaVelle Pitts died in July 2019 at the age of 84; they had been married for 48 years.
Sally Jo Pitts worked as a home economics teacher and guidance counselor during the time LaVelle Pitts served as Bay County’s sheriff (1981-89), and opened a private detective firm in his retirement. After Sally Jo Pitts retired from education, she joined his business, often partnering with him on stake-outs.
“He hated surveillance, but I just loved it,” she said recently, telling a tale of uncovering infidelity by capturing a photo of her targets kissing at a traffic light. “Lavelle knew what the heck he was doing. Starting off, I typed and proofread his reports, and he handled all the surveillance.”
She soon learned various techniques of questioning subjects and how to perform stakeouts successfully. Her husband bought her a badge when she became a licensed private detective.
Now she fictionalizes bits of true events in her novels, a background that may have enabled her to finish the second book in the series, “Winter Deception,” in just six months.
“I think it helps you give added strength to the story,” she said, adding that, “I also did volumes of research.”
Her current work-in-progress is set in a small Central Texas town that’s facing and oncoming flash flood.
“I always enjoyed writing as a youngster. I used to make up plays. But once I started teaching, that became my focus. Any writing I did was for lesson plans,” Pitts said. “I after I retired, I took a creative writing class and wrote a story based on something Lavelle had told me. It won first place locally and third in the Blue Ridge contest.”
Writing doesn’t come easily sometimes, she added. She might spend hours rewriting a sentence or looking for just the right word. And she’s diligent about researching anything that’s outside her experience.
“For the Spring book, I researched Blue Zones — places where people tend to live longer and be more active,” she said. “We work ourselves to death, hoping to retire and then relax, but you’re too old and can’t do much.”
She created a fictional island for the detectives to visit in a Blue Zone, where they become involved in a revolution and must save the day. But then she needed to know how far the island was from the mainland, what kind of plane might be able to ferry her characters there, how far could that plane fly, and so forth.
Then COVID-19 happened, and all of Pitt’s plot for her next book got thrown out the window because of social distancing and lockdowns. She had to go back to the beginning. “Summer Cover-up” became the story of a small group quarantined at a mountain lodge — and one of them is the killer in a cold case from Grey’s history.
“Since the Winter book in this series occurs in 2019, I had to deal with the pandemic,” Pitts said. “So I limited the group size, put them in quarantine and made everyone a possible suspect.”
Learn more about Pitts, her work as a private eye, and her novels at her website, SallyJoPitts.com.