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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The Blood Card (Stephens and Mephisto 3) by Elly Griffiths

Long live the Queen!

😀 😀 😀 😀

the-blood-cardIt’s 1953, and Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is investigating the death of a fortune-teller who drowned off the Brighton pier. It looks like an accident, but the possibilities of suicide and murder have to be ruled out. However, Edgar’s investigation is interrupted when he is called to London by General Petre to look into the mysterious death of Colonel Cartwright, who used to be one of Edgar’s superior officers during the war. General Petre has called on Max Mephisto to help too, since Max also worked with Colonel Cartwright, and there are aspects of the murder that suggest it may have something to do with the Magic Men – the outfit Max and Edgar were involved in, which used illusion to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies had greater defences than they actually did. It soon transpires that Colonel Cartwright was afraid that a plan was afoot to disrupt the coronation of the new young Queen, Elizabeth II, so Edgar and Max are under pressure to solve the case before that event takes place in a couple of weeks time.

I’ve enjoyed the previous books in this new series of Elly Griffiths’ a great deal, so had high hopes for this one. The Brighton setting just after the end of WW2 is brilliantly evoked, especially the rather seedy tone of the theatres and musical halls, and the performers who live a nomadic life around the various seaside towns of England, with, if they’re lucky, an occasional booking amidst the bright lights of London’s West End. Max is currently performing at the Theatre Royal in London, and has been tempted somewhat against his better judgement to appear on the new-fangled television – a medium he fears will lead to the final death of the already fading variety theatre. The TV show is scheduled to be shown on the evening of the Queen’s coronation.

Edgar meantime is still trying to pin Ruby down to setting a date for their wedding, but Ruby is not ready to give up her aspirations to become as great a stage magician as her father, Max. And Edgar’s colleague, Emma, is still harbouring feelings of unrequited love for him. Which is all a little annoying, since this book is set two years after the last one, and yet none of these characters seem to have moved on emotionally from how they were left then. Shades of the tedious Ruth/Nelson saga from Griffiths’ other series beginning to creep in, I fear. I wish Griffiths could either leave the romance out of her books, or else move it along – she seems to stick her characters into a situation and then leave them there forever. Hopefully she’ll resolve this triangle in the next book, or I’m afraid it will become as dull as poor old Ruth’s never-ending non-love story.

The plot of this one takes Edgar to America, which provides quite a bit of humour as Edgar tries to understand a society that feels very foreign to him. The picture Griffiths paints of America at that time feels very much based on movies of the period – it doesn’t give quite the same aura of authenticity as the Brighton scenes. But it adds an extra element of interest by expanding out from the rather restricted setting of an English seaside town.

Elly Griffiths Photo: Jerry Bauer
Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

For me, the plot of this one is too convoluted and loses credibility before it reaches the end. While it’s very well written and has a great dramatic ending, my disbelief was stretched well past breaking point before it got there. However, the recurring characters remain as enjoyable as ever, and as usual there are plenty of quirky new ones introduced to keep the interest level up. I also enjoyed the glimpse of the early days of television, when it was all still experimental and, of course, broadcast live, giving it plenty of potential for unexpected drama.

Overall, this isn’t my favourite of the series, but it’s still a good outing for Edgar, Max and the other recurring characters, and I look forward to seeing where they go next – with my fingers firmly crossed that they don’t remain stuck in their emotional ruts for too much longer.

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

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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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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…

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The Ties that Bind by Erin Kelly

the ties that bindBrighton still rocks…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Aspiring true crime writer Luke Considine is looking for the perfect case to form the basis of his first book. When he is cheated out of the story he has been working on and at the same time has a bad relationship break-up, he moves to Brighton on a whim, and there he comes across the perfect subject – Joss Grand, onetime gangster, now philanthropist and local legend. And to make his story even more interesting, the long-ago murder of Joss’s partner in crime remains unsolved. But though Joss may be old now, he still has an aura of danger and those who know him warn Luke to steer clear…

As Luke investigates, he stirs up old memories and soon finds his life in danger. Will he be able to get to the truth before it’s too late? And is the danger coming from more than one direction – if so, whom can he trust? The plot has all the elements of the standard thriller, but the quality of the characterisation and the strong sense of place lift it well above average.

Luke is a likeable and credible lead, and the breakdown of his relationship with his lover Jem is portrayed very believably. I found it refreshing that Kelly managed to include a gay relationship without allowing ‘the gay lifestyle’ to become the main focus of the book, as tends to happen all too often. Instead, as Jem becomes ever more out of control and threatening, Kelly concentrates on the psychology of him as a man, rather than as a gay man. And Luke stays realistic all the way through – he doesn’t suddenly turn into an all-action superhero in the last few chapters.

Brighton's iconic West Pier
Brighton’s iconic West Pier

The character of Joss is nicely ambiguous. Although he undoubtedly did some very bad things when he was a young man, he has lived a seemingly respectable life for many years, using his wealth to fund many projects around Brighton, so that he is now seen as a pillar of the community. But that wealth, though earned via legitimate enterprises, grew out of the dirty money that Joss made running protection rackets in the ’60s. So the question is one of redemption – can decades of good works wipe out the crimes of the past? That’s assuming that Joss is clean now – or could his legitimate businesses be hiding something darker? Old and ill though he is, there’s no doubt that Joss still enjoys knowing that people fear him…

Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly

The descriptions of Brighton, both present day and in the sense Kelly gives us of the past, are convincing. We see the touristy seaside town with its gaudy lights and seafront entertainments, but we get to see a darker underbelly too; especially in the Brighton of the ’50s and ’60s – Kelly directly alludes to Greene’s Brighton Rock, and the feeling of simmering violence amongst the Brighton gangsters is set well into the context of the time of the Kray twins’ rule in London’s East End.

All round, I found this an enjoyable and very well written thriller – good plot, strong descriptive writing and great characterisation. Highly recommended, and thanks again to Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books whose excellent review brought this book and author to my attention.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.

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