Consider the British seaside town of Brighton in 1950, a mere five years or so after the end of World War II -- bombed-out buildings, struggling economy, and a bare-bones police force, in which Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is trying to ignore his wartime losses and move forward. But when the body of a young woman is sent in three pieces, to his specific attention -- under the rank he had during the war -- he's got to take this one personally.
Edgar's war wasn't something he took pride in afterward. Recruited (after the Norway disaster) into a small corps of specialists in magic, sleight of hand, and psychology, swiftly labeled the Magic Men, he'd helped create false armaments along the English coast to trick the German pilots overhead. But things happened that cost lives, and he's ashamed and in an odd sort of mourning, as well.
Now it's all got to be exhumed, so to speak, along with his connection with the clever stage magician Max Mephisto. Yet Edgar and his friends appear to be reliably one or two steps behind the murderous person stalking them. What's it about? Who's to blame? How can he protect his friends (and incidentally not lose his job)? It's clear almost immediately that the mutilated body is meant to suggest a faulty magic trick called "the zig zag girl," and when the victim is identified, the links to the wartime crew are inescapable.
Soon Edgar's having to show a murdered Magic Men friend, Tony, to the man's aging parents:
"Anthony had a very important job in the war," said Mrs Mulholland. "He was with the Secret Service."The nimble way that Griffiths paints the war, the resulting friends-with-friction, and the challenges of chasing a killer without knowing the motive -- well, it adds up to a rattling good story and plenty of genial jests among the crimes.
"I know," said Edgar, thinking, as he had thought at the time, that the Magic Men was the least secret secret mission that he had ever encountered. Everyone in Inverness knew all about them. Tony kept himself in free drinks -- and worse -- by telling the locals that he was part of a crack commando team.
I didn't bond quite as tightly here as I did with the earlier Griffiths series; there's so much going on, and there are so many red herrings and twists of plot, that I think the characters aren't shown as deeply in THE ZIG ZAG GIRL. But I trust Griffiths as an author, and I'll ride along with the series, hoping that this enjoyable but fairly light introductory title will lead me into emotionally more complex and compelling waters.
In fact, since Griffiths admits her own family connection to the characters, I'm positive this is going to be a very good direction for her, and I am eager for the next book. This is one of those moments when the book in hand isn't quite as powerful as the ones that have already flown ... but there's good reason to trust that it's an opening act for an upcoming winner.
PS -- The author's website is not up to date, but still gives a good look at the earlier series: http://ellygriffiths.co.uk