Blessed with a talent for writing brisk and lively murder mysteries, Griffiths development as a writer is
evident in her new series that unfolds during the post-war years in the bucolic English seaside town of Brighton. Local Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens investigates the tragic death of a magician’s showgirl whose legs and torso are left in the luggage office of Brighton Station. Whoever dropped off the package--individually concealed within plain black cases--remains a mystery. A morning
spent looking at dismembered body parts is hardly what war veteran DI Stephens had expected. Haunted by a childhood dominated by the pursuit of respectability and by parents who reveled in their middle-class life, Edgar--an unmarried and
unassuming man--has no real aspirations save to live a quiet and comfortable life in his Brighton digs while he reflects and ruminates over his time in the Magic Men, a merry band of soldiers who used their talent for illusion to trick the enemy’s military.
With his natural investigative skills piqued, Edgar thinks of the boxes in which the body parts were found--wooden, black, fastened with brass clips at the back--and how they are somehow linked to Max Mephisto’s variety show at the end of the Brighton pier. As Edgar recalls the velvet curtains, the wheeled cabinet, and the white face of the magician as he proceeds to saw a woman into three, he thinks of how the body was cut, each part put into a black box.
The deception reminds him of a magic trick called the Zig Zag girl, the girl in a cabinet where the blades were cut through from the top to the bottom.
Edgar decides to chat with his old buddy, England’s most notorious stage-magician: handsome, debonair Max. Exotic Max, with his unique combination of acerbic charm and blunt honesty, introduces Edgar to nomadic theatrical life and its backstage world of greasepaint and showgirls and men doing sword-swallowing impressions. Edgar tells Max about the body, cut into three like a macabre version of Max’s famous trick, leading Max to join forces with his old friend to try uncover the identity of the showgirl along with the crime.
In The Zig Zag Girl, Griffiths perfectly captures the dying art of Britain’s
variety cabaret circuit. Max is still a star of sorts and determined to put on his last act as befits his star billing. Brighton is a shifty, seedy, seaside place “full of actors and foreigners and men wearing perfume,” a place that seems frozen in time and untouched even by the war. Max laments to Edgar that change is coming: theatre is giving way to cinema, and the wireless to television. Still, the beauty of Brighton is striking when contrasted with some of the truly ugly activities since the disappearance of Ethel and also glamorous Ruby in what rapidly unfolds as an itinerant life defined by different boarding house each week and an endless round of dressing rooms and band calls.
While the various contrivances sometimes overwhelm the drama, The Zig Zag Girl proves better at illuminating a lost period than coming up with a convincing solution for beleaguered Edgar and Max. Still, I thought the characters were all well-drawn, from classless, raffish, and slightly secretive Max, a man who presents a well-bred façade amidst all the chaos and decay, to Tony Mulholland--another member of the Magic Men, who turns up in Brighton trying to reinvent himself as a comedian, favoring mind-games and hypnosis over other kinds of magic, to Diablo, worn out by drink, poverty and years of touring seaside towns, an old man “rotting gently in a miasma of alcohol and nostalgic dance tunes,” to Edgar himself who remains plagued about what happened up in Inverness during the war. All were involved in a kind of gruesome game of cat-and-mouse where a ship
burnt and a girl unexpectedly died.
As the bodies pile up, Edgar and Max are convinced that the murders are linked
(albeit tenuously) to the Magic Men. But there are also the suspicious activities of Ethel in a frightening scenario that goes far beyond her connection to Max. Just like Ruby, Ethel twirled her way into Max’s life then vanished--along with Diablo, whom Max spies soon after wandering around Brighton asking after Ruby. Edgar, an admirer of traditional policing, remains staunchly loyal to Max.
There are many scenes of the two men wandering through the south of England from Brighton to Hastings, hot on the trail of a murderer. The perpetrator is a shock, but hardly surprising given the turgid activities of the Magic Men. The reader feels the threat with the same impact as the characters.
A clever, lively writer, Griffiths has her finger on the pulse of her beloved Brighton.
The novel serves as a labor of love for her hometown and the petty jealousies, nomadic hierarchies, and jaded, sleazy beauty that characterized 1950s-era music hall life. Whatever the outcome, the personalities of Max and Edgar drive this story in what I hope will be the first of many episodes to come.