Sunday, October 09, 2016

British Murder Mystery, Traditional Yet Chilling, from Elly Griffiths, SMOKE AND MIRRORS

It's not easy for American readers to keep up with the top-notch British crime fiction, when the American authors are the ones getting the big full-page ads and the point-of-purchase bookshop displays. Thanks to a partnership between UK publisher Quercus and pub giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), though, two strong series from Elly Griffiths are now available here. And her newest title, SMOKE AND MIRRORS, arrives in the costume of a traditional British murder mystery, with perservering CID officers and a snow-covered seaside resort town.

But with deft story twists and an appeal to the dark side of classic fairy tales, Griffiths quickly takes her detectives and the pantomime cast for "Alladin" in 1951 Brighton into terrain that's deceptive, wicked, and downright eerie. All of which could be expected if you're already reading this "Magic Men Mystery" series featuring professional magician and brilliant illusionist Max Mephisto.

Max has a deep connection with Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens, who is leading the search for a pair of vanished children: A decade earlier a British defense effort against Hitler's forces involved Max and Edgar and a handful of others -- the so-called Magic Men, established by the military -- in a secret operation to confuse any invasion of England's coast by faking the presence of strong defenses there. The trust forged in the operation allows Max to work sometimes with Edgar, a big plus for the CID because Max grasps how the illusion of a successful crime can be built. And busted.

As the investigators begin to realize that the criminal they're pursuing and the children missing are somehow connected with a staging of a twisted sort of "Hansel and Gretel" by a group of children, Sergeant Emma Holmes begins to step out of her chilly, self-protective role in the local force, following her hunch to talk with a teacher who'd encouraged the children's drama efforts, especially by young Annie, already writing scripts:
Miss Young did not protest that Annie preferred sciences. Instead, to Emma's surprise, she drew out a folder from a pile on her desk.

'She wrote plays and stories too. I was just looking at these before you came. Morbid really. But reading them brought Annie back for a moment.'

Emma looked a the first sheet of lined paper. ... The writing was perfect primary-school script: 'The Wicked Stepdaughter.'

Emma started reading: 'It's the stepmother who's meant to be wicked but mine's just stupid, a fool who doesn't know what's coming to her. No, I'm the wicked one.'
Is Annie, one of the missing children, actually manipulating her own disappearance? If not, has she somehow threatened an adult who is punishing her and the community? And what does all this have to do with another child's stage-related death from before both world wars, in 1912?

It takes a lot of courage by several people, some in the police force, some performers, some children, to resolve the case of the missing children. And there are more at risk.

Griffiths ties together the damages of wartime Britain, the failings of damaged minds, and the dangers of being an astute child, into a wintry and fast-moving novel of intrigue and suspense. Max Mephisto's sleight of hand and mind will tilt Edgar's insight ... but most important will be the way the investigators follow up even the smallest detail, as the snow buries clues and pushes the pace in Brighton and on Max's stage.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS is one of the best new crime novels for this autumn. No need to read The Zig Zag Girl (its predecessor) before this one, but you may want to get both at once, for a highly satisfying read.

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

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