Quercus | 2015 | 339p | Bought copy | Buy the book
It is August 1950 and Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is about to get an unpleasant surprise. Two large black cases have been recovered from the left luggage at Brighton’s railway station, reported as suspicious for their nasty stench. On opening them, Edgar is confronted with the head and legs of a woman sawn into three. The middle section soon follows but this black case, very disturbingly, is sent directly to Edgar. And there are notes as well, sent from a Mr Hugh D. Nee. The dead girl was clearly murdered in a way reminiscent of that famous magic trick – the Zig Zag Girl. This is just the sort of trick that Edgar’s wartime comrade and friend, and now a celebrated magician, the great Max Mephisto, would perform. And the coincidences don’t end there – Max is currently performing in Brighton and it appears that this poor girl was once Max’s glamorous assistant. It’s all about to get very personal for Edgar and Max.
I recently read and reviewed The Vanishing Box, the fourth mystery in the Stephens and Mephisto series by Elly Griffiths. I fell in love with it, so much so that I immediately bought the others in the series and now I’ve gone back to the beginning. It’s in The Zig Zag Girl that we’re first introduced to Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto who have met up again for the first time since they served together in the war in the curious and secret unit, the Magic Men. The Second World War still casts a shadow over Edgar, Max and the others in the Magic Men unit. And in that shadow answers might be found.
The historical setting in this series is perfectly realised. I love the portrayal of Brighton during the 1950s with its theatres, boarding houses, pubs and (possibly haunted) police station. These are the days in which variety performers are beginning to worry about the future in a television world, but the thrill and the skill of magicians, dancers, comedians, ventriloquists, snake charmers, performing dogs and all those other colourful personalities of the stage still lives and Elly Griffiths captures it all brilliantly. I love all of the historical details, the social codes, the old-fashioned policing, the almost theatrical suspense and danger of the case, the glamour of the theatre and the austerity of the post-war years. It’s riveting.
I love Edgar and Max. It isn’t easy deciding which I love more but I think it could be Edgar. Elly Griffiths paints his character beautifully, building it up over the chapters, as we learn his history, feel his moods, sadness and hope. He’s truly wonderful. And he and Max make such a fine partnership. Little builds a relationship like fighting together in war and they do feel like brothers. In this novel I particularly enjoyed the interaction between the surviving members of the Magic Men. They’re each very different but all linked with insoluble ties. And the little touches of humour, intermingling with the feelings of sadness and regret, are irresistible.
It’s not often that I fall for a series as fast and as deeply as this one. Smoke and Mirrors is the next in the series and you can expect a review of it very soon indeed.