It’s always a tricky business for a writer to stray from a successful series. Some novelists come a bit of a cropper. But with her new novel The Zig Zag Girl, set in post-war Brighton, Elly Griffiths soars to new heights. It’s a hugely enjoyable and evocative tale about the hunt for a killer who copies magic tricks.
The blurb has nothing up its sleeve:
When the body of a girl is found, cut into three, Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is reminded of a magic trick, the Zig Zag Girl.
The inventor of the trick, Max Mephisto, is an old friend of Edgar’s. They served together in the war as part of a shadowy unit called the Magic Men.
Max is still on the circuit, touring seaside towns in the company of ventriloquists, sword-swallowers and dancing girls. Changing times mean that variety is not what it once was, yet Max is reluctant to leave this world to help Edgar investigate. But when the dead girl turns out to be known to him, Max changes his mind.
Another death, another magic trick: Edgar and Max become convinced that the answer to the murders lies in their army days. When Edgar receives a letter warning of another ‘trick’, the Wolf Trap, he knows that they are all in the killer’s sights…
The Zig Zag Girl is a sly Christie-esqe confection, with its macabre, elaborate killings and deadly nightshade and whatnot, but there are also are shades of our old friend Patrick Hamilton’s melancholy Hangover Square in its depiction of down-at-heel Brighton, with its dismal B&B parlours and tea-rooms and its weary cast of small-time theatricals. But where George Harvey Bone’s tragic odyssey to the seaside ends in madness and tragedy, The Zig Zag Girl unfurls with a wry Ealing wit.
The world at the edge of the 50s is changing fast. You get the sense of a Britain falling hard, with a long way to go. Everything feels a little bit gin-soaked and two bob at the seaside, and Edgar and Max, both in their own way, struggle to find their lonely place in the world in the post-war years.
The ailing variety circuit is about to get blown-away by television -– it’s no coincidence, perhaps, that sitcom names such as Steptoe and Hodges turn up along the way –- and Griffiths presents an endearing portrait of that curious lost generation of drifting performers who moved endlessly around the country, from theatre to theatre and town to town, never stopping long enough to put down roots or form proper relationships.
The central conceit –- murders which represent famous magic tricks –- is suitably ghoulish, and made all the more gruesome by Edgar’s dogged, understated investigation. And, if you can see the final reveal coming a mile off, there’s such a lot to enjoy the way.
It’s always been her droll asides that have given her Ruth Galloway novels a bit of a bite, and in this new novel Griffiths lets the comedy off the leash. From the Trimmeresque Tony Mulholland, a bitter mesmerist and failed comedian, to the old soak Diablo and Edgar’s disparaging mother, helping to look after the ‘incurables’ at the local hospice, the supporting cast — the kind of characters who have just turned the corner of history — are a treat.
The Zig Zag Girl –- even the title, ostensibly named after the famous magic trick, is a sleight-of-hand — is apparently intended as a stand-alone, but maybe Griffiths can be encouraged to return to the end of the pier. Edgar and Max and Ruby –- the assistant who yearns to be a magician in her own right — are characters you really want to meet again and if Griffiths can come up with a suitable idea, maybe, just maybe, she could be persuaded to offer us another evocative seaside entertainment.
Many thanks to Quercus for the review copy. The Zig Zag Girl is available right now, priced at £16-99.
And, ooh, look. I’m delighted to say that Elly Griffiths is doing a guest post for Crime Thriller Fella later in the week. She’ll be talking about how she put the building blocks in place for The Zig Zag Girl. Come back for that, why don’t you!