Now You See Them (Stephens and Mephisto 5) by Elly Griffiths

Into the Swinging Sixties…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

A schoolgirl is missing. She left behind a note saying she was going off to London in pursuit of her teen idol, film star Bobby Hambro, but her father is insistent she wouldn’t have done this and must have been abducted or lured away. When Edgar Stephens, now a Superintendent, begins to investigate he finds very little, but fortunately there a few women on hand to help all the feckless males out. There’s his wife, Emma, once a police officer but now a bored and disgruntled housewife and mother. There’s Sam, the newspaper reporter, bored and disgruntled because her sexist boss seems to think she should be satisfied to make the tea for the male journalists. New WPC Meg is bored and disgruntled because she’s expected to stay behind in the station and type reports while the male police officers get all the exciting jobs. And there’s Astarte, the mystic fortune-teller, who happily is not bored and disgruntled, but did I mention she’s a mystic? Useful for moving the plot along with a bit of woo-woo whenever it gets stuck…

I know it doesn’t sound like it from that opening paragraph, but overall I quite enjoyed this although I think it’s much weaker than the earlier books in the series, most of which I’ve thought were excellent. The book starts as all the regulars come together for the funeral of Diablo who, like Edgar and Max, had been one of the Mystery Men during the war, a small Army outfit who used their skills in illusion to confuse the enemy forces. His death symbolises a break from the past. Eleven years have passed since the last book, so we’re now in Brighton in the early ‘60s, the time of mods and rockers fighting on the beach and the beginning of an era of great social change. Variety shows are no longer fashionable and Max Mephisto is now a famous film star. This means we’re no longer in the seedy world of theatres and theatrical boarding houses, and stage magic no longer plays a role in the plot. Rather a strange decision, I felt, since that was really this series’ unique selling point.

However, Griffiths handles the change quite well, quickly filling us in on what’s happened to all the recurring characters in the meantime. I didn’t think she brought the ‘60s to life as well as she had done with the ‘50s in the earlier books, but there were enough references to the changing social attitudes of the time to keep it interesting. As always, I became somewhat bored and disgruntled myself at the insistence which all crime writers currently have of ticking off all the political correctness boxes whether the plot calls for it or not, and I felt Griffiths handled this particularly clumsily. It was as if at the end she went back to a tick-list and shoe-horned in any compulsory issues she’d omitted – sexism? Tick. Feminism? Tick. Gay character? Tick. Black character? Tick. And of course all her main characters have liberal attitudes at least twenty, if not fifty, years ahead of their time.

As the plot develops, it becomes clear that more than one girl is missing, and then a body turns up. Now the race is on to find the other girls before any more of them are killed. I don’t want to tread too far into spoiler territory here, so I will simply say that I also get a little bored when recurring characters become potential victims and that happens not once, but twice in this book. It’s entirely unrealistic and is a lazy way to try to increase the tension. And the motivation of the abductor was flimsy at best.

Sometimes writing a review clarifies the thoughts a little too much and this has turned out to be more critical than I intended. While reading, I found it an enjoyable story, well written as Griffiths’ books always are, and although I felt it fell over the credibility cliff at a relatively early point, I was still intrigued enough to see how it all worked out. I did however feel that the ending was rushed and anti-climactic, and the hints that Griffiths gives at the end as to how the series is likely to progress in the future didn’t inspire me with confidence. I rather wish Griffiths would stick to standalones or perhaps trilogies or short series – somehow I always feel she runs out of steam with regards to what to do with her characters in longer-running series. I’d be happier for their personal lives to take a back seat and for the crime to be the major focus. However, I’ll probably stick around for the next one – I’m interested to see if she can make the signalled changes work.

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

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37 thoughts on “Now You See Them (Stephens and Mephisto 5) by Elly Griffiths

  1. Hmm……Usually Griffiths simply doesn’t disappoint, FictionFan. It sounds as though there were a few things off here, though, and that’s a shame. Now, with someone of her ability, even a weaker book is better than some other people’s strongest efforts. So I’m glad you found things to like about this one. Still…. Oh, well, I suppose even brilliant authors have their ‘off’ novels. By the way, I know just what you mean about checkboxes. If things like a gay character, or highlighting an ‘-ism’ fall out naturally from the plot, that’s one thing, and it’s welcome and can be refreshing. But if it’s contrived, I have to admit that’s annoying.

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    • For me, it’s that after the first few books in a series she seems to become more interested in the recurring characters’ love lives than in the actual crime element – I felt the same way about the Ruth Galloway books. But she’s an author always worth reading. As for ‘isms’ – pah! I’m so tired of having the liberal agenda stuffed down my neck every time I open a book, especially when it’s not done well. I fear I don’t believe a ’60s police officer in Britain would have had the social attitudes of a 2020s liberal…

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  2. I think a lot of pressure is put on writers these days to be as inclusive and pollitically correct as possible, and I am experiencing a fair amount of this first hand in my work with playwrights and theatre productions. I can see both sides of this issue, but it is a very tricky balance to get right, and if it comes across as forced or as writing by numbers, then something has clearly gone wrong somewhere. From the creative side of things, it can become very easy to get so tied up in knots by trying not to offend anyone, even by omission, that the end result turns into bland art with no real risk having been taken at all. Appologies for the digression here, but your comments about the increase in pollitical correctness in contemporary fiction really made me think.

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    • Feel free to digress any time! Yes, if the diversity or PC angle arises out of the story and is done realistically, then that has to be a good thing, but when it’s stuffed in to prove the author’s liberal credentials then it drives me mad. I don’t read crime novels (or even watch plays) to be told what I ought to think! Especially in historical fiction it’s so annoying when the characters’ attitudes are anachronistic. I lived through Britain in the ’60s and everyone (and yes, that includes me) casually and unthinkingly used derogoratory language about gay and black people – it’s entirely unrealistic for the characters in this book to be so 2020s “woke”, even in Brighton!

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  3. I’ve only read her Ruth Galloway books to date, and I enjoyed them. This one doesn’t sound as intriguing, sadly. I suppose a lot of pressure is put on writers to be all-inclusive and politically correct these days. Even if one sets one’s story in the distant past. Doesn’t make much sense to me, and I think it cheapens an author. But we all want to be published, and if that’s the way to accomplish it, why, that’s what we do. Wonder what publishing’s next fad will be??

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    • I enjoyed the early books in this series but the shift to the ’60s didn’t really work for me, and I do get tired of her spending more time on the recurring characters’ love lives than on the crime element. As for the PC stuff, I am so sick of it – I don’t read crime fiction to be told what I should think! I wonder if it really sells – I’m convinced the rise in popularity of vintage crime is due to readers wanting to go back to a time when crime books were simply an interesting mystery rather than an effort to push a liberal diversity agenda…

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  4. I’m still enjoying her Ruth Galloway books and need to catch up there (I think I’m two behind) before i begin this series. I want to fit The Stranger Diaries in at some point, though. I have it tagged at the library. 🙂

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    • Personally I think The Stranger Diairies is her best so far. I did enjoy the early Ruth Galloways but for me they developed the same problems as this series seems to be doing – too much emphasis on the characters’ love lives at the expense of well plotted crimes…

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  5. That’s a pity – I liked the stage magic and the 50s time period. I don’t think I’ll bother about this one – I can do without bored and disgruntled characters, ticking off political correctness boxes and an emphasis on personal lives. 🙂

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    • I think it’s very odd that she shifted it out of the ’50s so abruptly, especially since all the theatre stuff was what made the series stand out from the rest. And I do get so tired of having the “liberal agenda” shoved in my face every time I open a book… 🙂

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  6. I’m rarely bored but quite often disgruntled, so I can’t blame you or the characters for feeling the same way at times haha

    And sometimes, a little ‘woo-woo’ helps the plot move along at a quicker pace, without bogging us down in logistics. If I was an author, I’d build it into my narratives just to add the suspense 🙂

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  7. Well, I wasn’t the least bit bored or disgruntled reading your review, quite the opposite! I enjoyed thinking about which movie star I would have gone off to try and find as a schoolgirl, and decided anyone from The Outsiders would have been suitable 🙂

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  8. I’ve read The Zig Zag Girl some time ago and would like to read The Blood Card at some point (based on your review a few years back) but that might be it for this series for me, I think. Thanks for your engaging thoughts on Griffiths’ latest Stephens and Mephisto.

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    • I always find her series start with a bang and end with the dreaded whimper – or at least they would, if she ever actually did end them! That combined with my current apathy towards contemporary crime makes it hard for me to “sell” this one…

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    • I do find her series start off brilliantly and then tend to fizzle out – for me, anyway. Loads of people love the emphasis on her characters’ love lives. I hope she does do more standalones though… 😀

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    • The first two or three books are great, but I always find that gradually she allows her characters’ lives to get in the way of the plots once a series has gone on a bit. She’s still better than most of what’s out there at the moment, though!

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  9. I agree with your thoughts on Griffith’s writing although I haven’t read any of the books in this series. She is able to create a tense atmosphere but it always feels like there is something missing. Still, it sounds like you enjoyed the book despite the small mishaps 🙂

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    • I thought she’d done better in this series at concentrating more on the story and less on the people, but gradually it’s drifting back to that just like her earlier series did. It’s a pity because I do like her writing very much if she could just concentrate more on her plotting…

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