Thursday, 5 November 2015
Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths
[Brighton, 1951. Rehearsals for a Christmas pantomime, Aladdin, are underway.]
The Great Diablo, resplendent in a moth-eaten fur coat, steamed through the empty auditorium, arms outstretched. The cast of Aladdin, half-way through a frustrating and protracted dress rehearsal, turned to stare at the apparition.
‘Goodness me, is that Denton McGrew I see up there?’ Diablo peered up at the stage. ‘How are you, you old tart?’
‘Bloody hell. The Great Diablo.’ The Dame came forward, terrifying in striped stockings and a massive bustle. ‘I thought you were dead.’
‘No, I was in Hastings, dear boy. Easily mistaken. I’m going to be joining this merry band.’
‘You’re kidding.’ McGrew closed his heavily mascaraed eyes in horror.
Roger Dunkley appeared from the wings. ‘Boys and girls, meet the new Emperor of Peking.’
Diablo swept a magnificent bow. Max helped him get upright again.
commentary: I’m wondering if I can possibly explain the nature of the British pantomime to my worldwide readers. I think the answer is no. Especially the Dame. Even Edgar-the-policeman ‘had never before interviewed a man who was wearing full make-up, a hairnet, tweeds and a false bosom.’ The fact that in the photo above, the dame is carrying a sports trophy won by the local soccer team somehow represents the nature of panto in the local culture – its importance, its universality, but its very local feel.
This is the second book in Elly Griffiths’ new series, the Mephisto mysteries. (The first was The Zig Zag Girl, on the blog here.) I love Griffiths anyway, and particularly her Ruth Galloway series, but Max and Edgar are shaping up nicely too, and I liked this one even more than the first one.
It’s a cold snowy winter in Brighton, and two children go missing – policeman Edgar is investigating, his friend Max the magician is appearing in panto, and may have helpful information. I really like the unlikely use of two main characters – Max isn’t a clichéd amateur sleuth bustling around, his involvement in the crimes and investigation is carefully set up. A female detective, Emma, also helps out – I was slightly thrown by the change of POV, and didn’t at first know who the character Stephens was in her sections, as he is always referred to as Edgar in the rest of the book. My bad. And, I must also add that I liked that Griffiths didn’t use present historic tense in this book, it was all done in the past tense.
As ever, it was an excellent plot – I thought I had worked out what was going on, but I was completely wrong. And as ever, very entertaining. Griffiths has great fun with everyone’s cold weather clothing – a sergeant ‘apparently disguised as a deepsea fisherman in waders and oilskins’, Edgar’s Russian fur hat, Emma’s ecclesiastical duffel coat. At one point Edgar and Bob are trudging through the snow ‘in single file, like a modern-day King Wenceslas and his page.’
The scenes concerning the panto actors are universally marvellous, and Griffiths gives a tremendous sense of time and place. Altogther a terrific read, and very funny despite the sad subject matter.
The top picture is a traditional pantomime dame, from the Tyne and Wear archives. The caption reads: Photograph of Reggie Dixon in pantomime at the Empire Theatre Sunderland. He is holding a trophy. The trophy is the F.A. Cup won by Sunderland Football team. (This would pretty much date it to 1973.)
Aladdin poster from the UK National Archives.
Poster for Babes in the Wood – which also features in the book – from the British Library.