A few weeks ago we featured The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths. Her second novel in this series of Stephens & Mephisto Mysteries came out last month. Smoke And Mirrors is set a year later in 1951, this time Brighton is snow-bound during the run up to Christmas. Much as I loved the opening novel – this is one of the best new series I’ve come across in years – Smoke And Mirrors is even stronger.
Two school-children have vanished and there’s a frantic search to find them in the snow. On Palace pier, rehearsals are underway for panto season and the plot echoes with the dark origins of fairy tales. There are lots of engaging detail about the world of provincial theatres with their larger than life characters and seedy illusion.
It’s probably true of any series crime novels that the reader is looking forward to revisiting the detective and sidekick, the police team and their location. For the writer there’s a comfortable feeling that the regulars and setting have been established and now simply have to be built upon. Elly Griffiths does this admirably.
Her detective Inspector Edgar Stephens and his old friend Max Mephisto, a famous stage magician, are very likeable with well-drawn back stories. In this novel we get a wider view of their lives, meeting characters previously mentioned. The police sergeant is interesting and believable as is the new female member of the team.
Brighton is Elly Griffiths’ home town and she describes it with love and detailed knowledge, using real streets and locations. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric portrait – from the cold seafront with the pier theatre lit up in the darkness to the long icy hills up to the poorer edge of town and the bleak downland of Devil’s Dyke.
I like the way she uses the town’s real historic police station where the CID offices are subterranean and there’s even said to be the ghost of a chief constable murdered there in 1844. These days it’s a police museum, a fascinating place to visit. (The Old Police Cells Museum at Brighton Town Hall).
Smoke And Mirrors has plenty of suspects and is packed with red herrings. The final reveal is credible and satisfying. It stands perfectly well on its own but as with any series, it’s even more enjoyable if you know the background from the first novel.
A superb read and as a Christmas detective novel, it would make a great present.