The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

the zig-zag girlAbracadabra…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When the legs and head of a beautiful young woman are found in two boxes in the Left Luggage office at Brighton station, something about the body makes Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens think of an old magic trick, the Zig Zag Girl. But when the missing torso turns up in a box addressed to him under his old army title of Captain, he begins to realise that whatever the motive is, it’s personal. So he turns for advice to top stage magician, Max Mephisto, who served with him during the war in a top-secret unit dubbed the Magic Men. Together they begin to investigate a crime that seems to be leading them back towards those days and to the small group of people who made up the unit.

As a fan of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, I’ve always had two small reservations. The first is that they’re written in my pet-hate, first person, present tense, and the second is that because Ruth is not with the police, her links to the various crimes are often tenuous and a bit unbelievable. So it was a delight to me to see that this one stars a policeman and is written in the third person past. Griffiths tells us in the afterword that her grandfather was a music hall comedian and that her mother grew up in the world of theatrical digs and itinerant performers. The book is also based in Griffiths’ home town of Brighton. These things all come together to give the book a real feeling of authenticity, especially to the life of Max Mephisto, the co-hero, a top billing magician who is nevertheless aware that the old variety shows are beginning to lose their appeal.

The Zig Zag Girl trick  – I still can’t see how it’s done!

Set in the early 1950s, the investigation is written more like the stories of that time than today’s police procedurals. This is a slower and less rule-bound world where it doesn’t seem odd for the detective to team up with an amateur, and Edgar and Max make a great team. As they travel around England interviewing their old colleagues, we find out more about their war-time past and the tragedy that affected the whole unit. Griffiths takes her time to reveal the story and paces it just right to keep the reader’s interest while maintaining the suspense. Being based around the world of variety shows, there’s a whole cast of quirky characters, from the rather nasty mind-reader and comic Tony Mulholland, to the glamorous female assistant Ruby, who wants to become a magician in her own right. We also meet some of the old army men – shouldn’t every mystery story contain at least one retired Major? And the two leads, Edgar and Max, are very well-drawn and likeable.

Elly Griffiths
Elly Griffiths

The rather seedy world of the performers is portrayed very credibly – lives spent touring round the various seaside resorts, living in dingy bed and breakfasts run by theatrical landladies, and performing night after night in the grand old theatres at the ends of piers. Griffiths shows us Brighton as it’s on the cusp of changing from its old-fashioned respectability to becoming the more violent and dangerous place it became in the late ’50s and ’60s. Both place and time are done very well, with the shadow of the war still hanging over the characters and the world they inhabit. With an intriguing, complex plot, an interesting slant on a unique (and not entirely fictional) aspect of the war, some very enjoyable humour and a touch of romance, this is a great mystery of the traditional kind – and, for me at least, a real step up from Elly Griffiths’ already high standards. Is this the start of a new series? I hope so…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

70 thoughts on “The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

  1. So glad to hear you enjoyed this, FictionFan. Like you, I’m a fan of Griffiths’ work, and I give her a lot of credit for breaking out into something a little different. It’ll be very interesting to see whether this gets expanded into a series. I think that can sometimes be a very wise choice for an author – makes for more options. And I know what you mean about amateur sleuths. It’s always a bit tricky to find viable ways for them to get involved in a particular case.

  2. This sounds good. Although I am a big fan of crime novels, I do much prefer to read about the ‘old fashioned’ policing style to the modern police procedural. Crime-solving was just so much more fun back then…

    • Me too – I only really enjoy today’s police procedurals if I llike the main police person. But on the whole I prefer slower investigations with lots of interviews and clues and suchlike, rather than technology and autopsies…

    • Haha! Yes, it’s always fun when the body turns up in installments! But in the tradition of older-fashioned books, although the murders are pretty brutal, she really doesn’t go into the gory details – and no horrific autopsy deatils…

  3. This sounds like my kind of book – a sane policeman, information about a subject of which I know nothing (stage magic), and set in a period when the goodies were good and the baddies weren’t presented as admirable. Ah, those were the days…….

  4. I’ve had my eye on this since I first heard about it and so glad you’ve given it the thumbs up because that means I won’t be disappointed. Glad Elly Griffiths avoided your dreaded FPPT and interesting this will be another book that features the life of travelling performers (Interlude has them a decade or so earlier) Great review and a definite must-read for me.

    • I think you’ll love this! It has your name all over it really. That’s funny about the travelling performers – the one I’m reading now, The Bullet Catch, is also about a magician – the start of another trend maybe? It’s an interesting world though and allows for lots of great characters.

        • I don’t know if you saw that Angela Savage has recommended another one to me called ‘The Zig Zag Effect’, a YA that looks quite interesting. And it’s not as if they’re picking up on each other ‘cos they all must have been writing them at the same time. Spooky!

  5. I love the sound of this – and the time it’s set in is also one of my favourite periods, with the war still casting a shadow. The theatrical landladies sound intriguing, and this’ll be variety in it’s death throes, as it were…yep this is definitely going on my Wish List! Sounds like there could be plenty of potential for a series, and it’s good to see a writer has more than one string to her bow, as it were…I really MUST get stuck into the Elly Griffiths series! I’ve got at least two, and all my favourite bloggers love them, so I’ve no excuse. Great review, FF…And if anyone asks what I want for Christmas, I’ll probably just recommend they check your blog for ideas!

    • Haha! Thanks, crimeworm! Yes, Elly Griffiths is well worth reading – the Ruth Galloway series dipped a bit in the middle but the early books and most recent one have all beeen excellent, and this one’s great. The setting is interesting and she does it very well, and I really liked both the main characters… if you get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it!

  6. The first person, present tense always irritates me, so each time I began a Ruth Galloway book it was with a sigh and an effort to overcome my dislike – which I did manage, but only just, so this book sounds much more enticing. It’s going on my wishlist.

    • Yes, that’s how I felt about it too – I always ended up enjoying them, but knew I’d be enjoying them so much more if they were third person or past tense, or preferably both. If you do get a chance to read this one, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂

  7. Hi FF, coincidentally, Australian author Lili Wilkinson released a YA crime novel last year called The Zigzag Effect, also set in the world of live magic shows, though with a contemporary feel. You might consider reading it by way of comparison with The Zig Zag Girl. Being pitched at younger audiences, it’s suspenseful without being gruesome.

    BTW, for some reason I can’t seem to ‘like’ your posts at the moment. I’ve just changed internet browsers, so that could be the issue. Anyway, consider this page ‘liked’ and also your wonderful recent review of ‘Emma’.

    • I just took a look at the Kindle sample – I like her writing style and it looks nicely intriguing! Isn’t it odd how you get sudden little surges of books on roughly the same subject? Thanks for the rec – I’ve added it to the wishlist, though it’ll be ages before I get to it unfortunately – I seem to be buried under a pile of stuff that’s overdue for review at the moment. If only I had more willpower…

      Oh that’s odd – but then WordPress seems to have different little foibles whichever browser you use. Thank you very much anyway! 😀

    • Oh, I do hope you enjoy it! Haha! It might not have quite the staying power of Socrates but I love the setting – all those theatricals and seedy seaside theatres… 🙂

      • One of my secret joys is visiting Britain and its coastal towns and piers. Still a little seedy but probably in a different way than the 1950s. One of my kids’ favourite moments in our 2010 trip to the UK was Brighton on the night of the World Cup and the winning supporters celebrating good naturedly (!!) up and down the seafront, and I also love Whitby with its headlands and harbour …. but I digress 🙂

        • I love English seaside towns too, with the old piers and the kind of shows in the theatres that just don’t exist elsewhere. When I was a student back in the late ’70s, I spent a summer working in a holiday camp in Clacton-on-Sea, and have very fond memories of old people on benches watching the sea, wrapped in scarves and hats and coats, enduring the wind and rain that we call summer… 😉

        • I did enjoy the read, especially for the setting around the old piers and theatres, and also the reveal behind the Magic Men project at the very end. I did struggle a little with the switching in narration between Max and Edgar for some reason – it often took a moment to catch on to who I was with. And the name … Edgar ??? But I will get the sequel and read it over the holidays too. Have a great Christmas and thanks for your reading company in 2016!

          • My memory’s so shocking I can’t really remember the details of the plot now, but I think it was the setting as much as the actual story that I liked about it. Glad you enjoyed it enough to want to read the second one! Have a great Christmas, too, and here’s to more good books in 2017! 😀

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