Tag Archives: The Zig Zag Girl

Guest Post: Elly Griffiths on New Ideas

Earlier in the week we said all manner of good things about The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths. Scroll down to read that review, or if your mouse finger hurts, click here.

After writing seven books in her Ruth Galloway series, Elly has, er, zig-zagged in another creative direction with her novel about a copper and a magician solving a series of gruesome murders in post-war Brighton. And the good news is, Elly told Crime Thriller Fella on Twitter only this week that she’s writing a sequel, tentatively called The Demon King, set in the world of pantomime!

Oh yes she is.

So, we’re delighted to say that Elly has written a guest post about how she came to put her hugely-popular heroine aside for a bit to write The Zig Zag Girl. It’s essential reading for anybody who wants to know how successful authors get those fragments of ideas out of their clever heads and onto the page. Enjoy!

Elly Griffiths

Photo: Jerry Bauer

I’m often asked if I’m afraid of writer’s block. I always answer, ‘No, touch wood, ha ha, hasn’t happened yet’ (you have to be there really) but, in fact, what I fear is the opposite. I worry that I’ll never be able to get all my book ideas down on paper. Over the last seven years I’ve written seven books in the Ruth Galloway series. When I wrote The Crossing Places I never thought that it would become a series. If I had I wouldn’t have broken the cardinal series rule (No 1: don’t let the protagonists have sex) in the first book. But I’ve been delighted and humbled that so many people have liked Ruth and Nelson and wanted to read more about them. It also makes me panic slightly (but only in a good way) when, after reading the latest book, people say, ‘When’s the next one coming?’

Because seven books in seven years doesn’t leave much space for anything else. And, in my head at the moment and in no particular order, I have:

  1. A children’s series about the Norse Gods
  2. A serious book about Lourdes
  3. A crime series about an old lady who has ideas for crime novels
  4. A book based on my grandfather’s music hall experiences.

Last year no. 4 became too insistent to bear and I sat down and wrote The Zig Zag Girl. It’s party based on my grandfather’s life as a music hall comedian: a different town every week, questionable digs run by questionable landladies, a succession of chorus line girlfriends. In my granddad’s case this life was all the more remarkable because he had a young daughter in tow (my mother). In my book one of the heroes is a music hall magician, Max Mephisto, whose war-time experiences are loosely based on a real-life character, Jasper Maskelyne.

As I say, I didn’t know that The Crossing Places would be a series. When I first wrote it I didn’t even realise that it was crime. I’d published four non-crime books previously (under my real name Domenica de Rosa) and I didn’t, at first, think that this one was very different. Starting out to write The Zig Zag Girl was a very different matter. I knew this would be a crime novel and it started me thinking about the building blocks needed to write a successful book in this genre.

The Zig Zag Girl1. A protagonist. Having written seven books about Ruth I quite fancied writing about a man. Much as I loved the character of Max I thought that I needed a policeman hero. If your main crime protagonist isn’t in the police force it does become rather a strain inventing credible scenarios for them even if, like Ruth, they can plausibly be called in as a forensic expert. So I came up with Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens, idealist, ex-spy, sucker for a pretty face.

2. A memorable setting. The Ruth books started with the setting – the wonderful but slightly eerie North Norfolk coast. I needed something similar here. But I was lucky. I live in Brighton, one of the most atmospheric towns in England, rooted in a deep and often dark history. And setting the story in the 1950s meant I didn’t have to face the inevitable Peter James comparisons.

3. A cast. The Ruth books have taught me that you need to spread the load. You can’t have one character constantly in jeopardy or rescuing others. You have to create a cast. So, in The Zig Zag Girl I have a host of other performers, some of them inspired by my granddad’s collection of theatrical bills. The Great Diablo, a once-great magician who has now succumbed to the demon drink. Tony ‘the mind’ Mulholland, a specialist in mesmerism. Charis, the beautiful ex-WAAF. Emerald, the snake charmer. Sonya and Tanya, exotic dancers.

4. A story. Well, this should have come first because of course I had a story. It has been in my head some time along with the Norse Gods and the old lady who solves crimes. I do hope people enjoy it.

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths is out now, published by Quercus, priced at £16.99.

By the way, as we’re plugging stuff, check out this Intel Interview Elly did for Crime Thriller Fella earlier in the year.

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!

The Intel: Elly Griffiths

Elly Griffiths

Photo: Jerry Bauer

We love a bit of synchronicity around here. No sooner had Crime Thriller Fella interviewed Elly Griffiths than the news broke that she’s been long listed for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 2014, for her Ruth Galloway novel Dying Fall. This week we were more concerned with her new Galloway novel The Outcast Dead, which we reviewed on Wednesday.

Scroll down a bit and you’ll see that – but not before you get The Intel from Elly on The Outcast Dead, Ruth Galloway and, of course, her writing regime. You will not be disappointed.

In The Outcast Dead you very much explore the anxiety mothers feel when they allow childminders to look after their children – is it important to you that your novels have a theme to power the drama?

In a funny way the theme comes last. I usually start with an archaeological or historical idea, in this case nineteenth century prisoners held under the so-called separate system. Then the prisoner became a woman and a childminder, partly based on the real-life case of Amelia Dyer. This seemed to tie in with the theme of motherhood. Many of my characters seem to be becoming parents. I didn’t plan it this way but it’s one of the benefits of a long series. You can watch the children grow up in real time.

The characters – Ruth, Nelson, Judy and Cathbad among them – have very entangled emotional lives. What comes first character or plot?

As I say, probably the historical idea comes first, then all the other factors come into play. Character, plot and setting are all intermingled in my books. You can’t really separate them.

Norfolk is very much a character in the book – what is it about the county that you find so evocative and mysterious?

So many things! I spent a lot of my childhood in Norfolk and I think there is something magical about places you visited as a child. They retain their sense of awe and wonder. Norfolk also seems very big to me, possibly because I’m still seeing it on a child’s scale. But it’s also because it’s such a rich and varied landscape – and also slightly spooky.

But the main reason I set the books there is because there is such a wealth of archaeology in Norfolk. You have Neolithic flint mines, Bronze and Iron Age relics, Roman remains and a host of other historical sites, right up to the Second World War.

The Outcast DeadYour protagonist Ruth Galloway is both headstrong and insecure – what is it about her that your readers love, do you think?

I’m not really sure but I’m so happy that people love her because I do too! I think people like the fact that Ruth isn’t perfect. She’s shy, overweight and slightly grumpy. She’s insecure about her personal life but very confident in her professional sphere. I think people can relate to that.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

My children catch the school bus at seven-thirty. Then I make a pot of strong coffee and start work. I try to work from eight to eleven with no interruptions. My mum is housebound and I visit her every day at eleven-thirty so my writing time is quite limited. Having a set time to write works well for me. I’m not easily distracted (certainly not by housework!) and I try to write at least a thousand words a day.

Who are the authors or you love, and why?

My favourite author is Wilkie Collins. I love his sense of place, his humour and his characterization. I think Count Fosco in The Woman in White is the best villain of all time and Marian Halcombe the best heroine. When I was writing The Crossing Places I was very influenced by the description of the Shivering Sands in The Moonstone. I also like David Lodge, Anne Tyler and Alison Lurie.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

That not everyone is pleased for you when you write a book.

How do you deal with feedback?

I honestly think feedback doesn’t help with the creative process. I never show my work to anyone until it’s finished. Then, of course, I get wonderful help and advice from my editor and agent. But they are professionals and it’s their job. Having said that, I love hearing from people who have enjoyed my books. For me that is one of the joys of social media, being able to speak so directly to readers.

How have your own experiences shaped your writing?

I’m sure my life has shaped my writing but, the more I write, the better that is hidden. My early books (published under my real name, Domenica de Rosa) are very raw with personal experience. I’ve learnt to disguise myself now.

Give me some advice about writing…

Write every day and try not to go back on what you’ve written. Press on until you’ve got a final draft. And don’t ask friends and family for feedback!

Dying FallWhat’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…

Write to lots of agents and tell them that you’re doing this. The one thing agents can’t stand is the thought that one of their rivals might get their hands on a hot new writer.

What’s next for you?

I’ve got a new book out in the autumn. It’s a crime novel but not about Ruth. It’s called The Zig Zag Girl and is set in the theatrical world of the 1950s. The next Ruth book is called The Ghost Fields and will be out early next year.