Elly Griffiths – Smoke and Mirrors (2015)
Quercus, Hardcover, 352 pages
Expected publication: November 5th 2015
Smoke and Mirrors is the 2nd in the Stephens and Mephisto Mystery series by Elly Griffiths (probably best known for the Ruth Galloway novels).
It is Brighton, England in 1951 – the war is over but rationing is ongoing and life is still grim.
Max Mephisto, master illusionist, is slumming it somewhat in a pantomime on the Palace Pier playing Abanazar, the Demon King in Aladdin.
But the headlines in the local papers are no longer about his first appearance in a pantomime, but about the disappearance of two local children (Mark and Annie); when they are found dead in the snow, surrounded by sweets, it’s not long before the police nickname them ‘Hansel and Gretel’.
There are plenty of leads for DI Edgar Stephens (war-time comrade of Max) to investigate.
Annie used to write gruesome plays based on the unexpurgated versions of Grimms’ fairy tales – does the clue lie in her last unfinished – and rather disturbing – script?
Is the presence of sweets a red herring or where they used to lure them to their deaths by Sam Gee, owner of the corner shop where the local children bought sweets?
Or does the answer lie with the eccentric cast of theatricals who have assembled for the pantomime?
I haven’t read the first in the series (The Zig Zag Girl) but do like the Ruth Galloway novels so I thought this might be worth a try plus I have always been interested in the worlds of magic and theatre. In terms of whether you can start here, I think you can as I certainly picked up what background was needed to enjoy the novel as I went along so this can be read as a standalone novel in my opinion.
There is excellent characterisation, especially of the 4 main protagonists (Max Mephisto, DI Edgar Stephens and his 2 sergeants, Emma Holmes (new to CID) and Bob Willis) all who contrast with each other nicely – especially the Roedean educated Holmes and the secondary modern educated Willis.
The mystery element is well handled with twists and turns but a fair outcome.
But for me, it is the detail in the background that makes this book work so well – the wartime experience of Edgar and Max as part of a shadowy secret unit called the Magic Men who used stage trickery to confuse the enemy (paralleling the claims of Jasper Maskelyne in his book Magic: Top Secret) and the seediness of Brighton in general post-war and especially within the theatrical community are particular strengths.