Over the years I have spent more than a few holidays in that part of Southern Spain which stretches from Malaga to Puerto Banus, an area where the cult of the criminal was never far away. In every town people knew the pubs run by ex-cons and, in the 80s in particular, there were numerous reported sightings of the infamous Ronnie Knight, and, more excitingly, his then wife Barbara Windsor. I never saw either, although I did once spy Bjorn Borg having a drink with Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott – it was that kind of time and place.
Although I have not been for a while now the characters in Morgan Cry’s Costa del Crime novel, Thirty-One Bones, struck a chord, managing to stay on the right side of believable. This is, in part, because the real thing always verged on the unbelievable – local, often self-proclaimed, ‘characters’ who resided, either by choice or necessity, in this place which was as much little Britain as it was Andalusian.
So, the matriarchal ex-pat bar owner who has fled London’s east end with her bent lawyer/lover, the fading has-been with a Peter-Pan complex, the ageing alcoholic who came on holiday and never left, and twins who are aspiring never-will-be’s, are all recognisable as people you might meet when out for a San Miguel down the local port.
Throw in the long-suffering Civil Guardia, and the dangerous-when-double-crossed villain, and you have the makings of a dramatic thriller which is reassuringly recognisable yet transports you to sunnier climes. Not unlike the Costa del Sol itself, you can take from it what you want.
In some ways it’s Benidorm meets Bloody Scotland, or Tartan Noir hits Torremolinos – pulp fiction with a sunny disposition. There is also a nod to Agatha Christie with this group of disparate individuals connected through greed and/or revenge, but each suspicious of the other – Murder on the Mediterranean.
Things begin when Daniella Coulstoun heads to Spain after her estranged mother Effie dies in mysterious circumstances. She is there primarily to attend the funeral and take care of Effie’s estate, which includes her pub ‘Se Busca’ (which translates to English as ‘Wanted’) – a watering-hole which has become home to various waifs and strays. Daniella soon becomes embroiled in a number of criminal affairs which are her mother’s unwanted legacy.
What follows is a crime-caper which is fast, funny, and furious, and is the perfect read if you are looking to escape from the here and now. The chapters include transcripts of police interviews with each of the central characters. At the end of each interview, when those in the hot seat are asked to explain what’s going on, the final answer is always a version of “It’s complicated”.
One of the things which makes Thirty-One Bones such a page-turner is that it isn’t complicated. Of course, the twists and turns come as a surprise and keep the story moving along, as any good thriller should, but it is unashamedly entertaining and enthralling. Sometimes, that’s exactly what you need.