Macabre murders, quirky characters And delightful settings combine in a way that would make Midsomer proud in The Trust, the first book in the Astrid Swift cosy mystery series by MH Eccleston. Astrid’s burgeoning career as an amateur sleuth might get off to an inauspicious start when she spots an unknown gold bracelet in the shower of her swanky Battersea flat and puts two and two together to deduce that her husband Simon has been having an affair – and with her best friend Gina, no less – but her keen powers of observation and surprising tenacity are soon put to much greater use.
The affair turns out to be a double whammy for Astrid, who ends up losing both her marriage and her job as a conservator at the National Gallery, due to the duplicitous Simon being the boss there. Luckily, on the same day that her seemingly perfect life comes crashing down around her, Astrid receives a call from a solicitor. Her uncle Henry has died and left her his home, the charmingly named Curlew’s Rest, in the picturesque Dorset village of Hanbury.
While she hadn’t seen Henry in years, Astrid has fond memories of spending time at his cottage during childhood and she decides to decamp from London and all her woes to rejuvenate in the countryside. Of course, things never work out that and conveniently, when she finally gets to Hanbury, she discovers that Curlew’s Rest does not live up to her recollections of Henry’s residence: rather than a delightful country cottage, it’s a decrepit sailboat.
With little choice in the matter, Astrid moves onto the boat until she can get it fixed up sufficiently to sell and, in the meantime, seeks paid employment. A trip to the local pub provides her with both a new friend in form of the talkative Kath and a job opportunity at Sherborne Hall, the local English Trust stately pile. There aren’t many opportunities for art restorers in rural Dorset, so Astrid jumps at the opportunity.
She’s tasked with cataloging and restoring a collection of paintings rather reluctantly provided by the current Lady Sherborne for a forthcoming exhibition, which Astrid’s new boss Cressida hopes will prove a PR coup and drive up visitor numbers. Finding a possible work by John Constable among the collection seems exciting enough, but things really go up a gear when Astrid discovers the body of local antiques dealer Gerald DeVine in the Hall’s disused ice house.
Convinced that DeVine’s death couldn’t have been an accident and from sure that members of the constabulary are far capable of a thorough investigation into the matter, Astrid determines to look into it herself, enthusiastically if not ably assisted by Kath and a motley crew of English Trust volunteers.
The Trust is MH Eccleston’s debut novel and he has crafted a great opening to what promises to be an engaging series of cosy mysteries. Although Astrid may not initially be the most sympathetic and appealing of main characters – there’s definitely something of the Agatha Raisin approach in how she deals with non-city dwellers – she soon settles down and impresses with her determination to rebuild her life and her dedication to identifying DeVine’s murderer, which places her at no small risk of deadly danger. Plus, in the grand tradition of amateur sleuths, she has a special skill – in this case, being an expert art restorer – that proves invaluable when it comes to cracking the case.
Indeed, the appearance of a possible Constable in the collection opens another avenue of mystery for Astrid to pursue while she hunts for the murderer, with Eccleston working in just the right amount of detail about the art world and Astrid’s role in it. The fact that ownership of the painting could be disputed by the English Trust and Lady Sherborne means that there are even more possible suspects and motives to consider, adding to the complexity of the central puzzle.
While Astrid proves herself to be a canny sleuth, she couldn’t manage without the help and support of the eclectic characters she meets in Hanbury. Kath, in particular, is a great invention. The dynamic between her and Astrid is reminiscent of that between Agatha Raisin and Gemma Simpson, her cleaner and fellow crimefighter in the television series, leading to plenty of laughs as well as some surprising insights. The scenes in which Astrid interacts with the three central English Trust volunteers – Harold, Margaret and Denise – are also a joy.
Given the eccentric cast of characters, there are plenty of laughs and warmth in The Trust, but there are also some surprisingly serious aspects… and not just the deaths. It’s clear from the outset that Astrid’s husband Simon is a self-serving, conniving and cheating git, but as more is learned about him, it appears that their relationship might always have been less rosy that Astrid perceived. There are definite signs of coercive control and possible abuse, both financial and emotional, which might go some way to explaining Astrid’s rather superficial and abrasive personality at the start of the book.
The Trust is an engaging cosy mystery featuring an intriguing central puzzle, a bunch of suitably unsavoury suspects and a great group of intrepid crime solvers, and there seems plenty of scope for the latter to tackle more mysterious and murderous shenanigans in the future. It’s lucky then that the next book in the series, Death on the Isle, is due 7 July 2022.
If you like your cosy mysteries, be sure to also check out Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice and SJ Bennett’s A Three Dog Problem.
Head of Zeus
CFL Rating: 4 Stars