Elly Griffiths- The Zig Zag Girl

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!)

Peter James- Dead Man’s Time

Product DetailsA vicious robbery at a secluded Brighton mansion leaves its elderly occupant dying, and millions taken in valuables. But, as Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, heading the enquiry, rapidly learns, there is one item, of priceless sentimental value, that her powerful family care about, above all else. And they are fully prepared to take the law into their own hands, and do anything, absolutely anything, to get it back. Within days, Grace finds himself following a murderous race against the clock that leads him from the shady antiques world of Brighton, across Europe and back in time to the New York waterfront gang struggles of 1922, chasing a killer driven by the power of one man’s greed and another man’s fury.

Right, time for a startling confession. I have to date only read one Peter James book- shame on me.  So when I was approached to read and review Dead Man’s Time I was looking forward to the opportunity of re-entering D.I. Roy Grace’s world albeit with a seven book hiatus. In a way this has worked in my favour as I cannot have been said to be influenced by the other books, nor can this give me cause to compare this one to its predecessors in terms of style and character development, so it was really quite nice to read this in a vacuum unhindered, as I sometimes am, by the weight of those books in a series that have gone before!

I think was an interesting authorial experiment on the behalf of James as the action in the book pivots between the UK, Spain and America to accommodate the needs of the plot. The book opens in 1920‘s New York, as a young boy’s mother is killed and his father is spirited away by some ne’er-do-wells, immediately piquing my interest, but we are quickly settled back into present day Brighton, with Grace investigating a particularly heinous home invasion and the murder of its elderly occupant. It gradually unfolds that these two events either side of the Atlantic are related, and as the dead woman’s brother,  nonagenarian Gavin Daly- a man with his own shady past- seeks his personal revenge on those responsible, Grace becomes embroiled in a tale of greed and murder that inevitably comes a little too close to his own doorstep. I don’t know if it’s just a personal foible on my part, but I did feel that as a reader I had the uncomfortable sensation of treading water a little, during certain parts of the UK based part of the book. There seemed to be a quite laborious journey to who was behind the whole robbery and why, and how by some dubious coincidences Grace’s nearest and dearest come to be threatened, along with a swift trip to Marbella by Daly’s odious son Lucas, and oafish hard man sidekick, to deal with some miscreants and a random diversion to Germany for Grace’s ex-partner Sandy to vent at her therapist. But, fear not, the book increases in excitement one hundred fold when Gavin Daly plus odious son Lucas, the ineffable Roy Grace and a couple of his colleagues all hotfoot it to America for the final denouement. I loved this section of the book, bemoaning the fact that it couldn’t be longer, and loved the interplay between Grace and his American counterparts, the depiction of New York and its environs, and the brilliant Gavin Daly wreaking his revenge for the sins of the past. Excellent, but a long time in coming and rudely interrupted by Grace’s irritating other half, Cleo- despite being showered by police protection after a storm in a teacup incident- making him come home. No. Let him stay a bit longer to hang out with the cool cops!

 As the previous paragraph shows I did have issues with some of the supporting cast, but I do like Roy Grace- he’s so thoroughly decent and upstanding which proved a nice counterpoint to my personal preference of the more maverick and tortured souls who reside in law enforcement. I like his personal mantra that “he would never stop fighting his corner for the murder victims. He would work around the clock night and day to catch and lock up the perpetrators. And mostly, so far in his career, he had succeeded.” A good cop with a prodigious sense of right and wrong, ingrained with a wry humour and a natural empathy to those around him. I found the focus on his tedious home life a little too intrusive and disempowering throughout, but thought his character really came to the fore when involved in the cut and thrust of the investigation, and when interacting with suspects and colleagues.

The other standout character for me was the wily Gavin Daly, a man defined by his father’s disappearance in the era of Irish gangs in New York (the history of which was seamlessly woven into the central plot), and his lifelong ambition to find the truth behind his father’s disappearance and his final resting place. I thought this back story and the characterisation of Gavin himself gave some real backbone to the overall narrative arc, and his steely determination made him an admirable adversary not only for those who had sinned against him but in his cat and mouse relationship with Grace.

So despite a couple of quibbles, overall I quite enjoyed my return to the world of Peter James with Dead Man’s Time. I felt quite at home in the company of Roy Grace- our thoroughly decent detective- and thankfully the American aspects of the book, both in the terms of gang history and the relocation of the action to New York- lifted this from, for me personally,  a slightly average read, to a slightly infinitely more exciting one. Not bad- not great.

Peter James was educated at Charterhouse, then at film school. He lived in North America for a number of years, working as a screenwriter and film producer before returning to England. His novels, including the Sunday Times number one bestselling Roy Grace series, have been translated into thirty-five languages, with worldwide sales of thirteen million copies. Three novels have been filmed. All his books reflect his deep interest in the world of the police, with whom he does in-depth research, as well as his fascination with science, medicine and the paranormal. He has also produced numerous films, including The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes. He divides his time between his homes in Notting Hill, London, and near Brighton in Sussex. Visit his website at www.peterjames.com . Or follow him on Twitter @peterjamesuk Or Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/peterjames.roygrace


(With thanks to Sophie Ransom at Midas PR for the ARC)