Elly Griffiths has certainly hit on a good formula for what is now being called the Stephens and Mephisto Mysteries. There's something very attractive, in a down-at-heel sort of way, about the setting: Brighton in the 1950s, and especially the backstage milieu of the magic show and the pantomime. She's also become extremely prolific, for until last year, when the first of these was published, she was known for her best-selling Ruth Galloway series. Now she seems effortlessly to be able to produce two novels a year, one in each series. Impressive (though why I say effortlessly I can't say, as she may work her fingers to the bone and get really stressed over it all for all I know).
I imagine, anyway, that the new series must be great fun to write. There's obviously a lot of research going into it, and the novel seems to recreate this famous seaside town in its post-war days extremely convincingly -- the present novel is set in a cold winter, and I shivered on behalf of all the characters, mostly living in bleak, chilly bedsits or walking around snow-covered streets in totally inadequate footwear and unsatisfactory overcoats. Also I understand that Griffiths comes from a family with roots in stage magic, so presumably she has old memories and stories to draw on here. Because, although this is a police procedural, it also, like the first one in the series, The Zig Zag Girl (reviewed here), revolves largely around magicians and comedians.
So -- here we have DI Edgar Stephens, attempting to solve the disappearance and subsequent murder of a couple of bright, stage-struck teenagers. It quickly becomes clear that there's a theatrical link here. Not only were the kids planning to put on a subversive and gruesome play based on a well-known fairy tale, but the murder itself recalls one that was done some 50 years earlier, during the performance of a pantomime. What's more, two of the actors in the panto presently being rehearsed prove to have strong links to that earlier crime. By good luck, Edgar's friend, the attractive magician Max Mephisto, is also appearing in the show and can lend his help in solving what turns out to be the first of several disturbing crimes. Needless to say, magic has a part to play in all this, or rather better perhaps to say misdirection, which is after all the heart of most magic tricks and of course of most successful crimes too.
There's the proper amount of red herrings, tension, blind alleys and more, so the novel is very readable on that score. But what I always enjoy just as much in this kind of book is the relationships between the various characters. Edgar, who seems the most unlikely sort of policeman, being rather gentle and tentative, has fallen for beautiful Ruby, Max's newly discovered daughter (product of a long-ago affair with a lady snake-charmer), but doesn't know if his feelings are reciprocated. As for Max himself, he finds that he is getting increasingly caught up in a surprisingly enjoyable relationship with his landlady, Mrs M. And we mustn't forget terrible old Diabolo, who steps in at the last minute when one of the actors succumbs to alcoholism but refuses to speak the lines written for him by the clever, fussy writer, or Denton McGrew, the pantomime Dame, who flutters his heavily mascaraed eyelashes at the police when they some to interview him.
All great fun. I must admit that I still prefer Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series, but this one is definitely growing on me and I shall look forward to the next episode. Thanks to Quercus for the review copy!