Friday, 16 January 2015

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

published 2014


set in 1950





Max was so clearly in charge. Effortlessly elegant in a dinner jacket with the bow tie undone, he grinned sleepily down at the audience. By the time he had wandered down into the stalls and removed a watch from someone’s ear and a seemingly endless string of pearls from a woman’s handbag, the audience were in the palm of his hand. After a few complicated card tricks, enlivened by a stream of patter wittier than anything heard so far that evening, a trestle table was brought onto the stage and Max invited a girl from the audience to lie on it. A delicious tremor ran through the seats around Edgar. This was what they had come for. The faintly macabre sight of a man leaning over a woman and preparing to dispose of her.






observations: I am a big fan of Elly Griffiths, and her series about forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is one of my favourites. This new book is a standalone (though leaving the way open for sequels) with a completely different setting: post-war Brighton in all its seedy glory. Police inspector Edgar is investigating the murder of a young woman: she has been cut into three parts like the Zig Zag Girl of a magician’s trick. Max Mephisto is an old friend from the army. Could there be a connection with the highly secret group they were both part of during the War, the Magic Men? Max is still performing in variety – now sinking, threatened by TV – and he and Edgar try to find out what is going on.

Edgar and Max are nicely contrasting – Edgar so British, Max so Italian and charming, strolling through families ‘like Moses crossing the Red Sea. Moses in Italian shoes.’ As with all Griffiths there are funny neat observations – in a glancing reference to fake soldiers during the war, one character says they’ll look just like real soldiers ‘if we have them lying around smoking cigarettes and playing cards.’ (There’s a strange connection with the Jack Reacher book featured last week – the role of women in the armed forces is quite important.) And there’s the surefire joke when Max is at a theatrical boarding-house dinner table, and can understand the Italian spoken by one of the acts, who think they are communicating in safe privacy.

I loved the variety/music hall setting – Griffiths writes fascinatingly in an afterword about her own family connection, and the whole thing seems completely authentic. She was excellent at summoning up the atmosphere backstage, and in the dressing rooms, and the importance of the magician’s assistant. Brighton also came over clearly as an extra character. I very much hope she is going to continue with both this series as well as Ruth Galloway.

Find more Elly Griffiths by clicking on the label below. There’s a young woman who wants to be a magician in Zig Zag: also in John Dickson Carr’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience. Brighton features frequently on the blog, and Carter Beats the Devil is another book about illusionists. Marina Endicott’s wonderful The Little Shadows is also set in the world of variety.

The top picture is a magician from much earlier in the century, from the Library of Congress performing arts collection.

Can’t imagine Max from the book in a turban, but the other picture seemed otherwise about right: it's Akbar the Magician and his assistant in 1950, from a local history archive on Flickr. (He looks as if he is bare-chested under a waistcoat and bow-tie, but it is just a misleading angle: he has on some kind of across-the-body sash.)

16 comments:

  1. Moira, I thought this was a Golden Age mystery until I read the year of publication, last year. It does sound like the kind of story you might read from the 1950s.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know, it does, doesn't it? And I think she's very good at getting an authentic feel for the era.

      Delete
  2. Moira - I'm a big fan of Elly Griffiths and her Ruth Galloway character too. That's a great series, and it sounds as though this story is at least up to that standard. I love the way magic is woven into the context. And it's a historical novel too, which is a soft spot of mine. Yes, ticking lots of boxes here!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm sure you would like it Margot, as I did. When a favourite author leaves their series to do something else I have to sternly stop myself whining ('More Ruth! More Ruth!' in this case) - and really, this was very good.

      Delete
  3. Hummed and hawed over this lady's books but decided against in the end. My loss probably....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe one day we'll bring you round to her. I think you would like her series policeman, Harry Nelson - my favourite fictional cop.

      Delete
    2. If I could read........ooh 300 books a year say, I might have the time for her, but who on earth can read that many? Oh wait......

      Delete
  4. This books seems very interesting and of the setting is perfect for me. I am sure I will read it after I have cleared away some of my current books and read more of the other Ellie Griffiths series. Magicians always make me uncomfortable though. I don't know why.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh that's funny Tracy. I like magicians actually, and I really like books about them. Did you ever read Carter Beats the Devil?

      Delete
    2. No, I had not even heard of it until you asked. It does sound interesting.... although very, very long.

      Delete
    3. It is, it's a bit of a project. But if it ever fits in with one of your challenges you could give it a try. It's a strange and memorable book, and very clever.

      Delete
  5. I love the Ruth Galloway series, featuring her and her many colleagues and friends, including Harry Nelson.
    I don't think that I could read this one though, not my style -- and that's that darn TBR list and stacks staring at me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, stick with Ruth! Elly Griffiths tweeted me to say there would be a new Galloway book in April....

      Delete
  6. Yippee! (She says, clapping.)

    ReplyDelete