The Vanishing Box (Stephens and Mephisto 4) by Elly Griffiths

Staging a murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold and snowy December in the Brighton of 1953, and magician Max Mephisto has top billing in the variety show at the Hippodrome, along with his new stage partner, his daughter Ruby. Ruby’s fiancé, DI Edgar Stephens, has to put his plans to see the show on hold when a girl is found murdered in one of the many boarding houses in this seaside resort. Nineteen-year-old Lily Burtenshaw has been found strangled, with her body carefully posed to resemble a famous event from history. This makes Edgar think of one of the other acts at the Hippodrome – a troupe of showgirls called Living Tableaux, who appear almost naked on stage in recreations of historical or artistic scenes, their blushes covered by a few strategically placed feathers and some unobtrusive flesh-coloured pants. Artistic, young DS Bob Willis thinks – or sleazy, in the opinion of his colleague DS Emma Holmes. The first task the detectives face, then, is to see if they can find a connection between Lily and the troupe…

After the last book in the series took us off to London and America, I was pleased that this one returned to the theatre world of Brighton. Griffiths evokes both time and place convincingly, especially the itinerant life of the performers and the boarding houses they make their temporary homes. She’s very good at showing how the paths of the show people cross and re-cross as they travel round the theatres of Britain, so that relationships are always being renewed or broken as bookings dictate. She shows the contrast between the seediness of backstage life and the glamour of performance, and how some love the travelling life while others see it as a short-term thing until they find something more settled.

In both her series, Griffiths tends to concentrate on the romantic lives of her lead characters more than is usual in police procedurals. This is something that a lot of readers particularly like about her books. Personally I don’t mind a bit of romance, but I find it’s often given too much prominence for my taste in Griffiths’ books, although I prefer the way she’s handling it in this series. But in this book, it all becomes a little too much, with every main character being in love or lust with someone, relationships starting and ending and lots of low-level romantic angst. It might actually be quite a realistic portrayal since most of the leads are youngish and single, but it gives the book a cosy-ish feel which somehow takes away from the story of the crime.

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

However, the plotting is strong and the story flows well so that it held my interest all the way through. It’s more of a traditional length for a crime novel, thus avoiding the dreaded sagging middle – hurrah! And all three detectives are well-drawn and likeable – I enjoyed seeing Bob getting a bigger role in this one, and I was relieved that Emma didn’t spend too much of her time battling sexism (a theme with which I’m bored rigid). I did feel that Griffiths had to stretch a bit to make Max relevant to the plotting – if the series continues, it’s going to get progressively harder to work him in believably each time. Much though I like him, I’m kinda hoping that the development of Emma and Bob as stronger characters might allow Max to fade out a bit, leaving this as a more traditional police-based series, focused on Edgar and his team.

So overall, another strong entry in this enjoyable series – well researched, well plotted, well written. My criticism of the romantic angle is, I know, entirely subjective – Griffiths does it very well, and while it’s a weakness for me, I’m sure it will be strength for people who enjoy that aspect more. And otherwise, I like these characters very much and love the post-war Brighton setting. I hope there’s more to come…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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42 thoughts on “The Vanishing Box (Stephens and Mephisto 4) by Elly Griffiths

  1. There is something about this that feels really familiar… have you reviewed another Brighton-based mystery involving magicians or is it me? Also, in Our Friend Hugh’s second book, one of the baddies drugs women and poses them in scenes from famous paintings. So it might be that. I’ve just eaten half a cereal bar that I found abandoned in a public place, so obviously having one of those days 😀

  2. I agree about the romantic element – I was bored by it. And I think Max is on his way out of the series. You liked it more than I did – I thought it began well and then faded – 3* for me.

    • Yes, too much of it, isn’t there? I actually wondered if this might be the last book – the way it ended made me wonder if she was kind of giving them all some kind of happy-ish ending… I must admit it only scraped the four for me, and mainly because I love the setting and time period.

  3. I’m very glad you enjoyed this, FictionFan, I actually have an awful lot of respect for Griffiths’ ability to create two such different series. And she does a strong job in both. I’m with you about including too much romance in a crime series, but it’s good to hear that that wasn’t a major drawback here. And, hey presto! A new addition to a fine series! 😉

    • They are very different, aren’t they? I prefer this one for all kinds of reason, not least that it’s written in the past tense. But I also love the setting and the time period, and at least the romances are moving in this one… poor Ruth seems to have been stuck in the same romantic rut for about the last five books now! Maybe she should marry her off to Max… 😉

  4. Hmm. You make a good point about too much romance in a book. I also don’t mind some romance. But I’d probably draw the line when everyone gets a romantic subplot. This book has a good premise. But I love mysteries for their careful plotting rather than the romances.

    • Yes, I quite like one romance to give a bit of a happy ending feel at the end of a crime novel, but it gets too much when everyone is at it! It’s clearly a decision she’s made though, and it’s working for her – her books seem to be hugely popular. And it’s a sign of how good they are otherwise that I still read them despite the too much romance problem…

  5. I think I might enjoy this one. It also reminded me that I had started writing a crime novel set in the theatre world in Oxford as part of the crime series I wrote until my publisher ditched me 30,000 words in! I was enjoying writing as well. How rude of them! It also reminds me a bit of Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure I think that’s set in the 50s.

    • Ouch! Extremely rude! Would you go back to crime writing? I’ve been meaning to read one of them for ages, but you know the state of my TBR! Though I think it’s such a crowded market at the moment – it seems to be just sheer luck which books take off… Oh, I must read more Bainbridge sometime… sometime… sometime… 😉

  6. Always a problem for a crime series which has a non-professional protagonist, but I must admit I’m looking forward to another dose of magic and Brighton.

    • Yes, and this is her second series with the same problem – Ruth Galloway being an archaeologist, of course. But I love the time period and setting of this series anyway – hope you enjoy it! 😀

  7. For some reason I simply haven’t been able to warm to this series. I love the Ruth Galloway books and with my own drama background would have expected to enjoy these, but it hasn’t worked out. Oh well, my tbr pile is too big anyway!

    • I used to love the Ruth books but I got tired of them because of the ongoing non-romance between Ruth and Nelson – and of course the present tense. It’s interesting that the two series are so different in style they seem to have different sets of fans on the whole – not many writers can achieve that. I love the theatre setting of these – especially that it’s all variety and panto. I think I must secretly be quite low-brow… 😉

  8. Interesting review, FF, and I’m glad you found this book a worthy successor in the lineup. Something tells me you and I might be on the same page when it comes to every character having a love interest, though! Especially in what purports to be a crime novel. Oh well, I’ll check it out nevertheless!

    • Thanks, Debbie! Yes, I don’t mind a touch of romance in a crime novel but not when it becomes as prominent as the actual crime element. But loads of people love these books exactly for that reason – horses for courses, eh? And they really are very well written – great sense of place and time. 😀

  9. A brilliant review especially as I didn’t include my doubts about Max’s involvement in my review – personally I would like to see him disappear (magically of course) but I’m not sure how the author can do it when he is named as part of the series – on the romantic front I was pleased with developments 😉

    • Thanks, Cleo! 😀 I’m glad I’m not alone about Max – I do like him but he felt forced into this one and he can’t keep falling in love with a victim or a suspect every time! (Though Starsky and Hutch did it every week for years… 😉 ) Ha – yes, I was pleased too… though I wonder how that will work out in the next one! 😉

  10. I have never heard of these books. They sound interesting. I will add to my TBR. So many books. Life seems wonderful that way. 🙂

    • She’s an excellent writer and I prefer this series to her other one. If you do get a chance to read them sometime, I hope you enjoy them! Ha – I know! Too many books is one of the best problems to have… 😀

  11. It’s always a fine line balancing love lives with crime. Most crime novels seem to have some romantic storyline, although they are usually quite minor. I’m curious how authors come to decide how much is too much to include-I just assume they run out of space to fully flesh out these relationships! Seems as though this author doesn’t seem to have that trouble…

    • Then you will probably love these but they must be read in order for the sake of the various romantic storylines! Cosy is kinda light crime – the kind where nobody liked the victim and nobody is grief-stricken or angst-ridden, and it’s usually an amateur detective, and there’s quite often humour or romance. Like all these books you see called thing like “Murder in the Cake Shop” or like Murder, She Wrote. I quite like cosies for a quick comfort read… 😀

    • Yes, I think each book could easily be read on its own, but to get the benefit of all the relationships and the background to how Max and Edgar became friends, I think reading in order would be the best way. They are very good, despite the romance… 🙂

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