Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths


published 2015




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[Brighton, 1951. Rehearsals for a Christmas pantomime, Aladdin, are underway.]


The Great Diablo, resplendent in a moth-eaten fur coat, steamed through the empty auditorium, arms outstretched. The cast of Aladdin, half-way through a frustrating and protracted dress rehearsal, turned to stare at the apparition.

‘Goodness me, is that Denton McGrew I see up there?’ Diablo peered up at the stage. ‘How are you, you old tart?’

‘Bloody hell. The Great Diablo.’ The Dame came forward, terrifying in striped stockings and a massive bustle. ‘I thought you were dead.’

‘No, I was in Hastings, dear boy. Easily mistaken. I’m going to be joining this merry band.’

‘You’re kidding.’ McGrew closed his heavily mascaraed eyes in horror.

Roger Dunkley appeared from the wings. ‘Boys and girls, meet the new Emperor of Peking.’

Diablo swept a magnificent bow. Max helped him get upright again.



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commentary: I’m wondering if I can possibly explain the nature of the British pantomime to my worldwide readers. I think the answer is no. Especially the Dame. Even Edgar-the-policeman ‘had never before interviewed a man who was wearing full make-up, a hairnet, tweeds and a false bosom.’ The fact that in the photo above, the dame is carrying a sports trophy won by the local soccer team somehow represents the nature of panto in the local culture – its importance, its universality, but its very local feel.

This is the second book in Elly Griffiths’ new series, the Mephisto mysteries. (The first was The Zig Zag Girl, on the blog here.) I love Griffiths anyway, and particularly her Ruth Galloway series, but Max and Edgar are shaping up nicely too, and I liked this one even more than the first one.

It’s a cold snowy winter in Brighton, and two children go missing – policeman Edgar is investigating, his friend Max the magician is appearing in panto, and may have helpful information. I really like the unlikely use of two main characters – Max isn’t a clich├ęd amateur sleuth bustling around, his involvement in the crimes and investigation is carefully set up. A female detective, Emma, also helps out – I was slightly thrown by the change of POV, and didn’t at first know who the character Stephens was in her sections, as he is always referred to as Edgar in the rest of the book. My bad. And, I must also add that I liked that Griffiths didn’t use present historic tense in this book, it was all done in the past tense.

As ever, it was an excellent plot – I thought I had worked out what was going on, but I was completely wrong. And as ever, very entertaining. Griffiths has great fun with everyone’s cold weather clothing – a sergeant ‘apparently disguised as a deepsea fisherman in waders and oilskins’, Edgar’s Russian fur hat, Emma’s ecclesiastical duffel coat. At one point Edgar and Bob are trudging through the snow ‘in single file, like a modern-day King Wenceslas and his page.’

The scenes concerning the panto actors are universally marvellous, and Griffiths gives a tremendous sense of time and place. Altogther a terrific read, and very funny despite the sad subject matter.

The top picture is a traditional pantomime dame, from the Tyne and Wear archives. The caption reads: Photograph of Reggie Dixon in pantomime at the Empire Theatre Sunderland. He is holding a trophy. The trophy is the F.A. Cup won by Sunderland Football team. (This would pretty much date it to 1973.)

Aladdin poster from the UK National Archives.

Poster for Babes in the Wood – which also features in the book – from the British Library.














Comments

  1. I'm glad you're enjoying the way this series is shaping up, Moira. I'm heard, of course, of panto, but haven't seen it. It'll be interesting (I do intend to read this one) to learn a bit more about it. And, like you, I'm a Griffiths fan, so I'm already quite kindly disposed towards this one.

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    1. I think you'll like it Margot - and you will relish the opportunity to sit in on panto rehearsals, with lots of interesting language use. Right up your street.

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  2. I'm a big fan of Elly's too and probable won't be able to wait for this to come out in the States and will order it from Amazon UK.

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    1. It's awful waiting for the new one from an author you love, isn't it? Especially when you know other people already have it...

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  3. Moira - I've never tried her and have passed up numerous opportunities to at least welcome her into the tubs. If I ever do it won't be this one.

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    1. 'Welcome her into the tubs' has a very sinister ring to it! As you have so much piled off you are let off this one, although Griffiths is one of my very favourite current authors - I automatically anything by her.

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  4. The setting sounds just up my street. And I am glad it is past tense. I really am put off buy the use of the present tense. Simon Brett did a good novel with a pantomime setting, also very funny.

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    1. Yes, I think you would like this one Chrissie. I will look out for the Brett - we've already established that we are both suckers for a theatre setting....

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  5. Glad the plot is good - so often the setting can overwhelm that side of it - sounds great, thanks Moira - all very Christmassy ...

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    1. Good on all levels, I think Sergio. The two male leads - one a policeman, one an actor- works really well because you get a different view of what's going on - Mephisto is not an amateur sleuth helping out in the traditional manner.

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  6. Moira, I have never seen a live pantomime act in India, though I have seen them in the movies. Very occasionally, we see them in malls, as a marketing gimmick, but they are pathetic.

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    1. That's intriguing about the malls, Prashant! Pantomimes really are part of Christmas here, and are very popular: they don't resemble any other kind of entertainment, they are lavish spectacles and quite old-fashioned, but they show no sign of declining in popularity.

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  7. Now you have me sold on trying this new series by Griffiths, Moira. The past tense is much to be preferred. I am going to continue on the Elly Griffiths series, but the present tense does not invite me in.

    I have a question about Catriona McPherson's series. I have not had luck locating book 2 or 3 and The Winter Ground sounds attractive. Would it hurt to skip ahead to that one?

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    1. I knew that reference to the past tense would lure you in Tracy! It was because of you that I made sure to include the info in my post.
      I think that would be fine about the Catriona McPherson books - there aren't gret changes in her home life or relationships in the books as I recall. Winter Ground is a very good one.

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    2. Ok, thanks, that is what I will do. A copy has been ordered.

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