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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 137…

Episode 137…

Well, last time I admitted that my TBR had gone up to a horrifying 212, and cheered myself up by saying it could be worse.

How right I was! It’s now at 217 218!

Still, could be… aaaarghhhhhh!!! Noooo!!!!! Help Me!!!!!!

Oh, I beg your pardon! I’ll be fine once I’ve had my medicinal chocolate. Meantime, here are a few that are at the front of the pack…

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. The latest entry in Elly Griffith’s Stephens and Mephisto series, set in the rather seedy world of seaside variety theatre in post-war Brighton…

The Blurb says: What do a murdered Brighton flowerseller, the death of Cleopatra and a nude tableau show have in common? One thing’s for sure – it could be the most dangerous case yet for Stephens and Mephisto.

Christmas 1953. Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby are headlining Brighton Hippodrome, an achievement only slightly marred by the less-than-savoury support act: a tableau show of naked ‘living statues’. This might appear to have nothing in common with DI Edgar Stephens’ current case of the death of a quiet flowerseller, but if there’s one thing the old comrades have learned it’s that, in Brighton, the line between art and life – and death – is all too easily blurred…

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Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I loved Banville’s sparkling prose in his last book, The Blue Guitar, so am hoping I’ll love this just as much…

The Blurb says: A rich historical novel about the aftermath of betrayal, from the Booker prize-winning author.

‘What was freedom, she thought, other than the right to exercise one’s choices?’

Isabel Osmond, a spirited, intelligent young heiress, flees to London after being betrayed by her husband, to be with her beloved cousin Ralph on his deathbed. After a sombre, silent existence at her husband’s Roman palazzo, Isabel’s daring departure to London reawakens her youthful quest for freedom and independence, as old suitors resurface and loyal friends remind her of happier times.

But soon Isabel must decide whether to return to Rome to face up to the web of deceit in which she has become entangled, or to strike out on her own once more.

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. This is one of the books for my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. I seem to have been seeing a lot of reviews for Michael Innes’ books recently – there seems to be something of a revival of interest in him. Time to find out why…

The Blurb says: The members of St Anthony’s College awake one bleak November morning to find the most chilling of crimes has happened in their quiet, contained college. Josiah Umpleby, President of the college, has been shot in his room during the night.

The college buzzes with supposition and speculation. Orchard Ground and the lodgings are particularly insulated: only a limited number of senior staff have access and even fewer have their own keys.

With the killer walking among them, Inspector John Appleby of the New Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. As tensions rise and accusations abound, can Appleby determine which of the seven suspects had motive and malice enough to murder a colleague in cold blood?

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Audible Original Drama

Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. Having loved Audible’s dramatisation of Treasure Island so much, I couldn’t resist trying their new dramatisation of Northanger Abbey. Being an out-of-touch old codger, I don’t recognise most of the young cast, but the linking narration is done by the wonderful Emma Thompson…

The Blurb says: A coming-of-age tale for the young and naïve 17-year-old Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey takes a decidedly comical look at themes of class, family, love and literature. Revelling in the sensationalist – and extremely popular – Gothic fiction of her day, the story follows Catherine out of Bath to the lofty manor of the Tilneys, where her overactive imagination gets to work constructing an absurd and melodramatic explanation for the death of Mrs Tilney, which threatens to jeopardise her newly forged friendships.

This Audible Originals production of Northanger Abbey stars Emma Thompson (Academy Award, Golden Globe, Emmy and BAFTA winner, Love Actually, Harry Potter, Sense and Sensibility), Lily Cole (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Snow White and the Huntsman, St. Trinian’s), Douglas Booth (Noah, Great Expectations, The Riot Club), Jeremy Irvine (Warhorse, The Railway Man, Now Is Good), Eleanor Tomlinson (Poldark, The Illusionist, Alice in Wonderland) and Ella Purnell (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Never Let Me Go, Kick-Ass 2), amongst others.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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