Sun, sangria and sleuthing are all in store for art conservator Astrid Swift when she decides to make an impromptu visit to her estranged father at his new home in Estepona on the Costa del Sol. Having previously tackled murder and mayhem with aplomb in The Trust and Death on the Isle, Astrid is expecting to enjoy a far more relaxing time by the beach in Spain, even if she does hope to also find the answer to a long-running family mystery. However, there is evil under the sun far beyond controversy over the vagaries of Brexit and the appropriate components for a full English breakfast, and in MH Eccleston’s Death Comes to the Costa del Sol Astrid once again finds herself on the trail of a nefarious criminal.
The prospect of reconnecting with her father, Peter, is a welcome one for Astrid, although having to also deal with his new wife, the much younger Jennifer, is less palatable. The reunion gets off to a frosty start, but the possibility of a rapprochement is raised when Peter asks for Astrid’s help in tracking down an online troll who has been sending Jennifer sinister Twitter messages. Going by the Twitter handle @TheAllSeeingEye7 and the moniker Costa del Troll, they have repeatedly claimed “I know your secret” and the situation is getting Jennifer down.
Astrid might not know how Twitter works, but she is keen to impress her father and so agrees to investigate while also drawing on her other skillset to restore a copy of a Perugino painting for him. Although the technical aspects of the investigation prove tricky, it quickly emerges that Jennifer is not the only one in Estepona being watched by @TheAllSeeingEye7, which means that tracking the troll necessitates ingratiating herself with the regulars at Shakespeare’s Bar and Grill, a distinctly un-Spanish establishment that caters to British expats (seriously, they’re definitely not migrants).
The regulars prove to be an eclectic but welcoming bunch, and despite them also completely lacking secrets, they’re all keen for Astrid to unmask the troll. Her investigations to date have both involved making friends with eccentric groups of people who help her in strange and surprising ways, and this time round that role is entertainingly filled by the expats. From an acerbic septuagenarian former B&B owner in search of a religious revelation, to a pair of former teachers who frequent the local nudist beach, to a socially awkward detectorist with an unbeatable knowledge of risk, and several more charming oddballs besides, Eccleston has assembled a delightful cast of Brits abroad.
While gentle fun is poked at them all throughout Death Comes to the Costa del Sol, the shenanigans of the troll are no laughing matter. Before Astrid has a chance to make much headway, the troll begins to reveal the expats’ secrets, which range in terms of their severity and peculiarity but still cause much upset. When things take a surprising turn towards the more macabre and Astrid stumbles across a dead body, she realises that the troll must be stopped at all costs, although the expats remain focused on their personal concerns. At the same time, it becomes clear that the provenance of her father’s painting is questionable at best, suggesting that there are powerful forces at work in Estepona.
There are two major strands of mystery running through Death Comes to the Costa del Sol – the activities of the troll and the significance of the painting – which both allow Astrid to take centre stage and show offer her powers of deductive reasoning and her keen eye for detail. She might not have embarked on the investigation into the troll with the best of intentions, being more interested in discovering Jennifer’s secret than on stopping the trolling, but as she gets to know both her stepmother and the expats better, she recognises their pain and truly dedicates herself to the case. Through a combination of skill and luck she is able to get to the bottom of things, and her approach to closing the case this time round is particularly satisfying.
While it would be nice to revisit some of the characters from earlier books (shoutout to Kath and the volunteers at Sherborne Hall!), the device of immersing Astrid in a new setting in which she is surrounded by a whole new closed-circle of potential allies and suspects means that it is not possible for her to rely on prior knowledge of people and places to crack the case, which gives readers a good chance of solving the mystery alongside her. In addition to the expats being well-drawn and amusing characters, Eccleston does a great job of evoking life on the Costa del Sol, particularly the contrast between life for the Brits abroad and life for the Spanish and how the two groups rarely interact.
Like Astrid’s prior cases, the mystery of the Twitter trolling is a very human and intriguing one, starting off as an almost comical matter and then morphing into something far more serious. The poison pen letter has long been a staple of both classic and cosy crime, and Eccleston has brought the concept into the 21st century with the antics of the Costa del Troll. Similar to attempts to uncover the identity of the letter writer in classic tales such as Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, Astrid attempts to identify the troll based on psychology and likely characteristics, albeit with a technology-savvy twist. Death Comes to the Costa del Sol also reflects well the fact that poison pen letters have typically been perceived as a gateway crime leading to more serious offending, again with a twist.
Beyond allowing Eccleston to include insights into art restoration and the market for religious artworks, the intrigue involving the painting adds another layer to the story and brings additional machinations to the fore, again highlighting how a beautiful and tranquil landscape can provide the background to myriad sins. Although the interactions between Astrid and Peter are rather stilted and cold at the beginning, as their relationship warms up they find themselves in a kind of cat-and-mouse scenario wherein both parties have secrets, know secrets and pretend to be unaware of the other’s secret-related activities. This new dynamic suggests that interesting things could be in store in future books.
Death Comes to the Costa del Sol is another excellent cosy mystery from MH Eccleston. With Estepona turning out to be more Midsomer than Malaga, there is crime and grime aplenty for Astrid to investigate, to say nothing of the weird and wonderful people that she encounters while doing so.
Head of Zeus
CFL Rating: 5 Stars