ellyBrighton 1950. When the body of a girl is found, cut into three, Detective Inspector Edgar Stevens finds himself thinking of a magic trick that he saw as a boy: the Zig Zag Girl. The inventor of the trick, Max Mephisto, is an old friend of Edgar’s, having served together in the war as part of a shadowy unit called the Magic Gang. Hence, the story pivots back to their wartime activities, when they were based in Scotland working on plans to thwart a possible German invasion through illusion and subterfuge. Max is still on the circuit, touring seaside towns in the company of ventriloquists, swordswallowers, dancing girls and third rate comics- including another wartime acquaintance of theirs, Tony Mulholland, who dabbles in mesmerism as well. Changing times means that variety is not what it once was, but Max is reluctant to leave this showbiz world to help Edgar investigate, and is only coerced into action when the dead girl turns out to be known to him. Edgar and Max become convinced that the murder is linked to their army service, and when Edgar receives a letter warning of another ‘trick- The Wolf Trap– he knows that they are all in danger…

I always think it’s a brave decision by an established series author such as Griffiths with her hugely popular Ruth Galloway novels, to step outside of the familiar and tackle a standalone (or opener to a possible new series). I had similar fears with Belinda Bauer, on the publication of Rubbernecker, but Griffiths like Bauer has succeeded admirably in my opinion. Having said that, I would partly put my enjoyment of The Zig Zag Girl down to my own fascination with the world of magic, particularly of this period and earlier, so many of the little nods and references to magic resonated very well with me- Hugh D. Nee indeed! However, where I think Griffiths succeeds so well in this book, is the underlying sense of fun that she seems to be having, and that we can participate in, along the way. There are a host of great little comic interludes and one-liners, that add another dimension to what is essentially a more graphic and souped-up classic Golden Age mystery, including the trusty use of tea cup and poison, transported into 1950’s Brighton. The unerring sense of darkness, and the slight seediness and desperation of the world which Max in particular resides in, is set against the lighter comic tone with great effect, reminding me strongly of the brilliant Bryant & May mysteries by Christopher Fowler. Add into the plot the pivoting timeline, charting the beginnings of the less confident Edgar’s and uber confident Max’s friendship, with their undercover and top secret wartime mission, and The Zig Zag Girl, draws us into its own little illusionist’s trick where nothing is quite as it appears…

I am a self confessed fan of Griffiths, and what I enjoy most about her writing is her characterisation, and this book does not disappoint. Every character is incredibly well-delineated, no matter how small or large part they play in the plot. I’ve already identified the essential difference between policeman Edgar and showman Max in terms of confidence, but it’s incredibly interesting to see how this chalk-and-cheese combo, and their understated loyalty to each other, join forces to catch a killer. Likewise, the character of Mulholland is joyous- in common parlance he would be a total **** – and I enjoyed the acerbic mocking by Max of Mulholland’s purported mesmerist skills and comic talent. He has none. There is also a wonderfully credible female character with Ruby, harbouring designs on being a world famous female magician in her own right, who enthrals Edgar, but strangely manages to resist the obvious appeal of the suave and cool Max. These characters draw you in completely, and I genuinely cared about the peril each faces as the story unfolds. So in conclusion, I was rather keen on The Zig Zag Girl, with its terrific blend of light and dark mood, the strength of the characters, the use of the shabby seaside locations, and the careful balance of historic period detail. All in all it’s fun, a jolly good murder mystery, with a few unexpected shocks along the way to jolt the reader. Magic…

(With thanks to Quercus for the ARC, the dinky playing cards and entertaining fridge magnets!)

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