Saturday, September 09, 2017

Crime Among the Magicians, in THE BLOOD CARD from Elly Griffiths

US cover
British author Elly Griffiths provides two entirely, vastly different series of crime fiction -- and whichever series I happen to be reading becomes the best at that moment for me! This skillful storyteller gets under the skin of her characters -- whether crime solvers, victims, or criminals -- and brings me directly into the scene, eager to explore and to test my own "readerly" sleuthing as the plot twist and the characters reveal themselves in good and evil.

Griffiths reaches number three in her "Magic Men Mysteries" with THE BLOOD CARD, released in America a few days ago. This satisfying "traditional mystery" series began with a set of World War II veterans whose connections to each other involved building a deceptive front to deter a Nazi attack during the war -- a group called the Magic Men for their work with illusion at that time -- and takes them into the strange postwar years of 1950s Britain, when bombed-out buildings filled the cities, food rationing continued for far longer than Americans might have guessed, and a shattered and shell-shocked nation began to rebuild.

In the Magic Men series, postwar rebuilding involves both returns to careers of "before," as master illusionist Max Mephisto has done in the music halls and other gritty urban venues around him, and attempts to carve out new paths forward: like Detective Inspector (DI) Edgar Stephens, who's hoping to soon marry Max Mephisto's recently discovered daughter, another illusionist or, as Americans are more likely to say, magician.

THE BLOOD CARD opens in 1953, with the English excitedly preparing for the royal coronation of Elizabeth II (yes, her reign began in '52, but the coronation came later). There will be a public holiday, mass gatherings, and -- most strangely for Max to contemplate -- people will watch the event on their new parlor devices called televisions.

To Max's amazement, his almost dying stage career suddenly gets a boost from an invitation to perform in a televised event as part of the coronation festivities. (It's his daughter Ruby who's suggested him for the show, a rather humbling situation.) Meanwhile DI Edgar Stephens can't pay much attention to his old friend Max, because he has the death of a local fortuneteller on his hands -- a death that's looking like murder, but very hard to investigate due to the closed community of Gypsy background to which the dead woman belonged.
UK cover

When Edgar's investigation doubles and crosses into Max's circle of stage illusionists, mesmerists, and such, there are startling common elements -- including the presence of a playing card known to magicians as the "blood card" (the ace of hearts) and a playbill for a stage performance from years ago -- the crime investigation takes on national importance. After all, the circumstances suggest a possible terrorist attack to coincide with the royal coronation!

Griffiths deftly raises little-known details of the performing world and England's postwar recovery, as well as the stresses of her characters, from Edgar's premarital strains to Max's struggles with aging in a young person's field, and to the heartache of one of Edgar's constables, Emma. Not everything will be resolved, either -- as the fortunetelling family in the book's foreground, the Zabini clan, could have told us from the start.

Grab a copy for the pleasure of reading a traditional British mystery with highly memorable characters, paced impeccably as Griffiths once again demonstrates crime-solving storytelling at its smoothest and best. Highly collectible -- you may in fact want both series, and thank goodness, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has brought them across "The Pond."

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.


Gram said...

I'm in the middle of this one now. Why is the UK cover always more interesting?

Beth Kanell said...

That is indeed a puzzle!