set in 1950
observations: I am a big fan of Elly Griffiths, and her series about forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is one of my favourites. This new book is a standalone (though leaving the way open for sequels) with a completely different setting: post-war Brighton in all its seedy glory. Police inspector Edgar is investigating the murder of a young woman: she has been cut into three parts like the Zig Zag Girl of a magician’s trick. Max Mephisto is an old friend from the army. Could there be a connection with the highly secret group they were both part of during the War, the Magic Men? Max is still performing in variety – now sinking, threatened by TV – and he and Edgar try to find out what is going on.
Edgar and Max are nicely contrasting – Edgar so British, Max so Italian and charming, strolling through families ‘like Moses crossing the Red Sea. Moses in Italian shoes.’ As with all Griffiths there are funny neat observations – in a glancing reference to fake soldiers during the war, one character says they’ll look just like real soldiers ‘if we have them lying around smoking cigarettes and playing cards.’ (There’s a strange connection with the Jack Reacher book featured last week – the role of women in the armed forces is quite important.) And there’s the surefire joke when Max is at a theatrical boarding-house dinner table, and can understand the Italian spoken by one of the acts, who think they are communicating in safe privacy.
I loved the variety/music hall setting – Griffiths writes fascinatingly in an afterword about her own family connection, and the whole thing seems completely authentic. She was excellent at summoning up the atmosphere backstage, and in the dressing rooms, and the importance of the magician’s assistant. Brighton also came over clearly as an extra character. I very much hope she is going to continue with both this series as well as Ruth Galloway.
Find more Elly Griffiths by clicking on the label below. There’s a young woman who wants to be a magician in Zig Zag: also in John Dickson Carr’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. Brighton features frequently on the blog, and Carter Beats the Devil is another book about illusionists. Marina Endicott’s wonderful The Little Shadows is also set in the world of variety.
The top picture is a magician from much earlier in the century, from the Library of Congress performing arts collection.
Can’t imagine Max from the book in a turban, but the other picture seemed otherwise about right: it's Akbar the Magician and his assistant in 1950, from a local history archive on Flickr. (He looks as if he is bare-chested under a waistcoat and bow-tie, but it is just a misleading angle: he has on some kind of across-the-body sash.)