Smoke and Mirrors (Stephens and Mephisto 2) by Elly Griffiths

He’s behind you…!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

smoke and mirrorsIn the midst of heavy snowfall in the winter of 1951 in Brighton, two young children are missing. Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens and his team are desperately searching but as time passes and temperatures plummet below zero, hope is beginning to fade. And Edgar’s worst fears are realised when the children are found dead on Devil’s Dyke, with sweets strewn in the snow around them. Annie and Mark had been best friends for years, with Annie as the leader and Mark a willing follower. The children had been involved in writing their own plays – chilling little twisted versions of fairytales, and the scene of the murder looks almost like something out of a fairytale too. Meantime Edgar’s friend, magician Max Mephisto, is starring in the Christmas pantomime at the Palace Pier Theatre as Uncle Abanazar in another fairytale, Aladdin. Throw in a previous murder in 1912 during rehearsals for Babes in the Wood, and Edgar has to wonder if all these things can really be coincidence…

Loved this one! Yes, even despite the dead children motif. The big difference is that it’s told in a more traditional way – in third person from the perspective of Edgar or occasionally one of his team, instead of in first person from inside the head of a grief-stricken parent. This removes the reader to a safer distance where s/he can sympathise rather than wallow or be drowned, and where the mystery takes priority over the misery. It’s also told in the past tense so has none of the clumsiness that sometimes afflicts Griffiths’ writing in her Ruth Galloway series. In fact, she writes so well in past tense I wish she’d change to it for the Ruth books too.

Elly Griffiths
Elly Griffiths

If you call your book Smoke and Mirrors, your readers can expect a bit of misdirection and Griffiths provides it in spades. The clues are there but they are so cunningly concealed beneath an entire shoal of red herrings that this reader didn’t get even close to the solution, despite having suspected pretty much everyone who appeared at one point or another. But I didn’t feel the answer came out of nowhere – at the end, Griffiths shows us Edgar’s thought processes as he finally works it all out and it all feels plausible and credible (unlike some of the theories yours truly had come up with along the way) and, looking back, it’s fair-play. And the red herrings are all neatly cleaned up too – no leaving a mess of untidy loose ends hanging around. (Oops! The idea of herrings with loose ends is a little yucky – so sorry!)

The Brighton setting and sense of period in this series is pretty much perfect. Griffiths even gives an authentic feel for the way people talked back then, particularly in books, without it ever sounding pastiched. (Practically zero swearing and not a single f-word – amazing! And yet the world is still turning…) The only thing that is a tiny bit anachronistic is Edgar’s attitude to things like women and gay men – he seems a bit too politically correct for the era. But that does make him more likeable, and we get to see more realistic attitudes from some of the other characters so that the overall picture of this time-period still feels genuine. There’s a female sergeant on Edgar’s team now, Emma Holmes, and she’s a good addition – also likeable, and shown as competent and intelligent without becoming some kind of feminist superwoman.

Stanley Baxter - best ever pantomime dame!
Stanley Baxter – best ever pantomime dame!

I love all the stuff about Max and the theatre and in this one all the panto scenes were done brilliantly, with a good deal of warmth and humour coming into the book through both the on- and off-stage antics of the cast. Who could possibly not love a book where one of the characters is called The Great Diablo? Or where poor Edgar has to interview someone who is halfway through the process of transforming from middle-aged man to glamorous Pantomime Dame complete with eyelashes and camp jokes? I love traditional panto with all the cross-gender stuff and mildly risqué humour that works at different levels for children and adults, and I thought Griffiths captured it all perfectly. In fact, I’m kinda hoping she takes up writing pantomime scripts as a sideline! I really want to know more about Handy Andy from Tonypandy…

Great stuff, that shows that the more traditional style of detective fiction can still provide strong stories, good characters, and baffling mysteries while being truly entertaining. A must-read series for me already after only two books, so I’m delighted that the way the recurring characters are left at the end leaves plenty of room for more to come…

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

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