Elsie Lee | Lancer Books | 1969 | 254 pages
After the sudden death of her husband, Bartolomeu, Nell Valentim takes her fifteen-year old stepson, Chris, to live in her newly inherited family estate on the Portuguese coast. A ramshackle series of additions to the original castle built up over the last few hundred years, the run-down estate named Costa Demonio was seemingly the only item of value possessed by her late husband. Leaving New York to live rent-free in Portugal, the now strapped-for-cash Nell wonders if Bart’s great-uncle Sansao—from whom he inherited Costa Demonio—hid a secret stash of valuables somewhere on the grounds of the estate, since during his lifetime he had the reputation of possessing a great personal wealth.
Upon arrival at Costa Demonio, Nell is greeted with a less-than-expected courtesy toward its new owner. Damon Lord, an English tenant living in a farmhouse on the property, tries to convince Nell that the castle is uninhabitable, and that she must leave at once. A previously unknown cousin, Alexi Valentim, comes forward to warn Nell away from exploring any of the original structures, citing a concern for her personal safety. Even Huberto, the old caretaker, seems to treat her with disdain, reserving any respect for her stepson, whom he considers to be the true dom of the estate. The family’s local agent and lawyer not only seems to be unaware of Nell’s visit, but of her very existence.
During one of her first nights at Costa Demonio, Nell sees flashing lights on the estate grounds, and a mysterious boat braving the jagged coastal outcroppings to enter the small harbor during a storm. Because of the region’s history of piracy, Nell immediately assumes that a smuggling operation is being conducted through the property, and that the behavior of her new acquaintances implicates them in the suspected crimes. Determined to expose the operation, she ignores all her previous warnings and begins a search for secret tunnels and hidden storehouses in the old castle.
A tepid thriller, Satan’s Coast distinguishes itself from other genre entries through its heroine’s self-awareness of conventions [or maybe she’s just a good detective rather than an avid reader of romance paperbacks]. After witnessing a few mysterious lights and a boat offshore, Nell immediately deduces what, in other Gothic romances, is often revealed in the denouement as the source of mysterious doings in similar old castle locations—namely, a smuggling operation. However, Satan’s Coast doesn’t have much left to offer, with few twists along the way other than the disclosure of who exactly will be implicated when Interpol finally arrives [at least hide something in one character’s artificial foot, if nothing more than as a red herring!].
Other than a blow to the head during an investigation of possible secret tunnel locations, Nell is never really is much imminent danger. Although the villagers fear that the castle is haunted, there aren’t even any ghostly specters to liven up another day of gardening and assembling one-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles. The fate of Bart’s first wife, Cecily, could have provided a foundation for an ongoing undercurrent of tension, with Nell fearing that history will repeat itself, but even that potential remains mostly undeveloped.
Perhaps the greatest loss comes in the anticlimactic photo-shoot that Nell, a former fashion model, organizes on the grounds of Costa Demonio to thwart the suspected smuggling operation. A classic case of all dressed up and nowhere to go, the long-weekend event at the castle, filled with a roster of supermodels, ends with a square dance and a round of polite goodbyes.