Quercus | 2017 (2 November) | 358p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is the winter of 1954 and a young flower seller, Lily, has been found murdered in her room in a Brighton boarding house. She has been arranged by the killer so that she matches almost completely a famous painting’s portrayal of the death of Lady Jane Grey. She has been dressed in a white gown, she is blindfolded and her arm reaches out for the execution block on which she must place her head. DI Edgar Stephens has never seen the like before. But it appears that two other young ladies in the same house are actresses currently appearing in Brighton’s Hippodrome Theatre. And they, along with a few other women, perform each night in a ‘living tableaux’ – almost naked, except for a few strategically placed props and feathers, they reenact famous historical scenes, such as the death of Cleopatra. Edgar is not a man to believe in such coincidences.
In the very same show, Edgar’s friend and wartime comrade Max Mephisto is top of the bill along with his daughter Ruby – they are a magician’s double act and, such is their fame and skill, they have attracted the attention of TV producers, even Hollywood. The significance of this show is lost on no-one. And neither is the horror of poor Lily’s fate, especially when it is shortly followed by another death. This time the victim comes from the living tableaux troop itself. Everyone at the theatre is suspect. This isn’t easy for Edgar, not least because of his engagement to Ruby.
The Vanishing Box is the fourth novel in Elly Griffiths’ Stephens and Mephisto series and I am staggered that this is the first one I’ve read. I’m a big fan of the author’s contemporary Ruth Galloway detective series but, for some reason, I’d avoided the Mephisto books. I think this might be because of the the title of the series. I thought it was something to do with carnivals and magic (subjects I fear) but I was so wrong. Mephisto is a theatrical magician but he is firmly grounded in reality, as is Edgar Stephens. In fact, we’re transported back to the fascinating early 1950s, a time still recovering from the loss and hardship of World War II. The theatre is an escape. It offers glamour and hints of sin, a new reign has begun. There is optimism but also regret and nostalgia. Stephens and Mephisto both carry burdens on their shoulders and they are compelling.
In some ways this novel could be described as cosy crime and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s no criticism. I love this sort of mystery and its setting in a bygone time. It reminds me in some ways of an Agatha Christie detective novel but that’s largely because of the period in which it’s set. just as police technology was very different in those days, the police force is also as affected by manners and social mores as the rest of society, and this is especially seen in the character of DS Emma Holmes. I really, really liked Emma. But there is something so wonderfully old-fashioned about her character and that of Edgar Stephens – or, not so much old-fashioned, as from a different time. I love it.
The nature of the crime is also from another time. There’s no excessive blood or gore. It’s stylised and evocative. The relationships in the novel drive on the story as much as the clues do. The setting of Brighton certainly adds to the mood as does the theatricality of the characters and the crimes. It’s all completely engrossing and beautifully arranged with period clothing, manners, attitudes and theatre, with a little splash of romance and sin thrown in to add a little tension.
Elly Griffiths writes beautifully and the characters she creates are full of colour and life. I had no desire to put The Vanishing Box down and read in two sittings. I have also made sure that I now have the other books in the series to enjoy. I might be about to read them backwards in order but I don’t think that will matter. Any future novels will go to the top of my reading pile for sure. I am so glad I read this!
The Chalk Pit