Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 Untamed Shore is a standalone thriller.
Viridiana is determined to escape her small Baja California town. Much to her mother’s displeasure, Viridiana turned down her boyfriend’s proposal and the secure but tedious domesticity that marriage offers her. As soon as the first opportunity to leave appears, Viridiana will take it. The only problem is, such opportunities are uncommon in Desengaño.
Then three rich Americans come to town.
Ambrose is rich, and a self-styled writer. Ambrose’s skills do not extend to typing. Bright, multilingual Viridiana is hired as Ambrose’s personal assistant, a position that requires her to live in the well-appointed but sterile house Ambrose has rented. Although the living arrangements are reason for caution — Viridiana has no desire to be a live-in maid — the money is too good to turn down.
Sharing the accommodations are Daisy, Ambrose’s glamorous and much younger wife, and Gregory, Daisy’s handsome but penniless brother. The arrangement is very straightforward. Daisy married Ambrose for his money, and if she keeps Ambrose happy, Ambrose is content to let Gregory sponge off him.
Viridiana looks forward to a rewarding summer: decent pay, a glimpse at the lives of the beautiful people, and the distraction of being courted by Gregory. It doesn’t turn out as hoped. Ambrose is self-centred and abusive, Diana occasionally lets her gracious façade slip, and Gregory pesters Viridiana for something more than kisses and light petting.
The escalating tension comes to a head when Ambrose falls down a flight of stairs. How he came to take his tumble is not clear. What is clear is that he is quite dead. The local authorities, more concerned about the potential headaches a dead tourist could cause than the pesky details of how he died, dismiss the death as an accident.
The faster the bureaucratic resolution, the faster Daisy can get her inheritance and the faster she and her brother can head off on new adventures. Who knows? Perhaps Viridiana can tag along.
Then Ambrose’s nephew Lawrence Landry arrives in Desengaño. He starts asking inconvenient questions. What if he convinces the police his uncle was murdered? No worries. Daisy has a perfect patsy to fit into the frame: naïve Viridiana, who is only just beginning to realise that Daisy and Gregory are not the people they claim to be.
There is a shark on the cover. There are sharks in the ocean near Desengaño. They are plausible, realistic sharks, however, so while it would be a very bad idea to go swimming with open wound, they’re not that dangerous for the prudent locals. You’d think the Americans would be considerate enough for at least one of them to go for a dip while trailing streamers of blood. Nope. Chekov’s shark is never taken off the mantlepiece. I bet that gets changed if there’s a movie.
Which isn’t to say there is any lack of soulless predators in this book. Daisy and Gregory make their living coolly assessing who has the right combination of money and short-sightedness to be worthy prey, and who might be sufficiently gullible or blackmailable to serve as an expendable pawn. Charm is only one tool in their kit; they have less savoury skills.
Later we find that they are by no means the biggest predators to arrive in Desengaño.
Although this is a comparatively short novel, Moreno-Garcia’s pacing is initially leisurely, carefully establishing the cast of characters before peeling off their veneers. Ambrose does not take his tumble until more than a third of the novel is over. Once Lawrence arrives, the pace picks up; Daisy and Gregory have a deadline and the closer it looms, the more obvious their machinations. The novel is narrated from Viridiana’s perspective. There’s escalating tension: will she escape the snares laid for her? A page-turner.