Tag Archives: George Harvey Bone

The Zig Zag Girl – Elly Griffiths

The Zig Zag GirlIt’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:

Brighton, 1950.

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!

Magic – William Goldman

MagicWhen the sad news of Richard Attenborough’s death was announced, I’d just started reading William Goldman’s Magic.

Adapted for the screen in 1979, Magic proved to be an obscure  footnote in Attenborough’s directing career, wedged into the cracks of a CV crammed with sumptuous epics such as Gandhi, A Bridge Too Far and Cry Freedom.

I remember some random images from the movie – mostly of the ventriloquist doll Fats, with those bulging dummy eyes, red cheeks and neat centre parting. Anthony Hopkins played the deranged protagonist a full decade before he was launched to stardom thanks to some similar onscreen lunacy.

At the time, William Goldman, the writer of Magic, both the book and the movie, was one of the first screenwriters to stick his head above the parapet. His non-fiction memoir/writing manual Adventures In The Screen Trade was an unlikely bestseller – and remains still one of the best books about the business.

This was the guy who wrote Butch and Sundance, All The President’s Men and Harper for the screen – and many others. But I remember as a kid being absolutely blown away by the first shocking chapter of his novel Control – a thriller which is, mind-bogglingly, out of print these days. He also adapted his own novels Marathon Man and, of course, The Princess Bride.

So I was interested to see what I made of Magic all these years later… and, hell, what a novelist that man was – sadly, Goldman’s last fiction was written in 1986. It’s almost impossible to discuss without giving some of the game away, so here goes…

Corky is a talented but failed magician, whose  career only takes off when he incorporates a dummy called Fats into his act. When he’s offered a TV show, Corky goes on the lam, frightened that executives will discover that it’s Fats who increasingly calls the shots in Corky’s head. He heads back to the Catskills where he meets his old childhood crush Peggy Ann. Throw in Corky’s wizened agent and Peggy Ann’s oafish husband, and things start to get murderous in the woods as Fats’s true nature is revealed.

As you can tell, Magic is a book which is very much in the Psycho mould, a claustrophobic chamber-piece. It takes a couple of chapters to warm up, but when it does it really delivers as a portrait of a damaged personality. Despite his, er, homicidal issues (and some hints that he’s got previous in this area) Corky is a hugely empathetic character in the George Harvey Bone mould.

Fats gives Corky confidence, he gives him a voice, and he give him an act with which to present his beloved Magic. But one part of Corky’s brain is increasingly fighting a disastrous rearguard action against the other half. We root for Corky to pull himself together and yearn for him to find happiness with his lost love even as we know that the worst is yet to come.

As you’d imagine from a screenwriter, Goldman’s dialogue is to die for. It just zings off the page and straight into your brainstem. Magic is tight and focused and would make Ira Levin proud, with some nail-biting set-pieces, including one fabulous scene where Corky’s agent, alarmed by his relationship with the dummy, challenges Corky not to speak as Fats for five minutes, just five minutes…

If this book was written now, or filmed as a movie, the chances are, the publisher would want more shocks, more out-and-out horror moments, but like all the best horrors, Magic is absolutely rooted in character. And the biggest character of them all is Fats, a malevolent little guy with tiny wooden legs. His voice, charismatic and sarcastic, rings fully-formed in your head as you read.

Hangover Square – Patrick Hamilton

UnknownWe all have those novels that we are drawn back to again and again because we love them so much, and because they inevitably remind us what great writing is all about. For me,  one such novel is Patrick Hamilton’s melancholy Hangover Square.

This review, I warn you, may include *Spoilers* – but what the heck, the novel was only published 72 years ago.

Hangover Square is the story of  George Harvey Bone, a lumbering loner who has succumbed to mental illness. George is obsessed with Netta Longdon, an ambitious but indolent fellow-drinker in the numerous low-rent public houses of Earl’s Court. Tormented by her cruelty and manipulation, George eventually kills her and another man.

There’s little reason why we should care for George Harvey Bone. He’s an unemployed drunkard who sponges off his Great Aunt. But George has  been booby-trapped by life – he lost his beloved sister in an accident at an early age and all the people who have cared for him have slipped away. He’s alienated, slipping through the cracks of society, and Hamilton rings an awful lot of pathos from George’s desperate situation.

George is a shambling man, who is often described in uncomplimentary terms, as if seen through the eyes of Netta’s callous Earl’s Court gang: “They saw him as a poor, dumb, adoring, obvious cow-like appendage to Netta… Somebody you could really dismiss with easy conviction as an awful fool.”

Most of the novel is spent in his drink-addled and tortured mind, both in his everyday existence and in a schizophrenic state George calls his ‘dead moods,’ where he feels cut off from life around him: “It was as though a shutter had fallen. It had fallen noiselessly, but the thing had been so quick that he could only think of it as a crack or a snap.” It’s in this state that George believes his salvation lies in the murder of Netta and Peter.

In his dead moods George isn’t some kind of homicidal genius. He’s still the same confused individual, it’s just that he has a muddled sense of how to fix his life. When he snaps out of those moods, George has no idea of his murderous instincts – Hamilton cleverly distances George from his own actions.

The antagonist, Netta Longdon, is an unworthy object of his desire. She’s manipulative and cold and self-obsessed, and utterly contemptuous of George. Netta’s wingman, the other object of dead mood George’s murderous musings, is the equally cruel barfly Peter. Peter is revealed as a fascist sympathizer, and a hit-and-run killer to boot. Netta and Peter are portrayed as hateful characters.

The other major character in the book is George’s childhood friend Johnnie Littlejohn. He’s a kind man, the antithesis of Netta, who has his friend’s best-interests at heart. Johnnie is the conscience of the book, and as a character, he carries many of its themes  — of simple kindness; of lifting our fellow man high – on his shoulders. In order that we invest in George’s well being, he must have an escape from his dire lifestyle, and Johnnie’s character is a mechanism for that.

Hangover Square is a masterful novel that always plays against the reader’s compulsion to side with the victim of crime against the perpetrator. It’s a good example of how a novel of suspense can make interesting and unexpected choices, giving the reader conflicted emotional responses. We root for George. We’re desperate for him not to kill Netta, and to pull himself out of the dreadful tailspin he finds himself in in life.

Hangover Square is a crime novel in one sense — there’s a crime at the heart of it, or at least the prospect of one – and when he wrote it, the author Patrick Hamilton was at the height of his powers, terrifically successful and wealthy thanks to his smash-hit plays, Rope – a high-concept thriller if ever there was one – and Gaslight.

In that post-war period, Hamilton received the same acclaim as his contemporary Graham Greene. His other novels included the trilogy that makes up Thirty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, the Gorse trilogy – made into ITV series The Charmer way back when, and based loosely on the exploits of the wartime conman and murderer Neville George Heath – and, another of my favourite books, The Slaves Of Solitude.

But Hamilton became something of the forgotten man of British literature. The last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in his work and his evocation of lonely city life between the wars, and rightly so.

What I liked: Just how ‘good’ is your protagonist? In these morally ambiguous times anti-heroes have become ten a-penny. But I still find myself having endless debates about to what extent readers will invest in books which feature murderers and career-criminals and professional assassins – the conclusion always seems to be that a reader may not have to like the hero or heroine of a novel, but must empathise with them in some way.

If you have a “bad guy” as your main character, one way to get the reader on your side is to make the antagonist even worse. Readers may not like double-murderer George Harvey Bone, but Netta and Peter are such hateful characters that part of us would quite happily see them dead.

Characters like Bone tend to be like Marmite – you either love them or hate them. What about you – do you write sick, deranged or violent characters? Anti-heroes who behave beyond the usual norms or society – who live by the sword and die by the sword?

Is it important to you that your readers like or admire your characters, or do you give the characters who populate your writing free reign to be themselves, and damn the reader?