I recently discovered that Elly Griffiths, who writes the Ruth Galloway mysteries and has three volumes in a fairly recent story line starring Harbinder Kaur, has yet another series, called either The Brighton Mysteries or Stephens & Mephisto, new to me although not new. She wrote the first, The Zig Zag Girl, in 2014, and the sixth one came out in 2021, so presumably it is an ongoing effort. I was excited by the prospect of another series by this author, especially because this one is billed as more of a “cozy,” so I picked up the first when it was offered at a discount by Book Bub. I am disappointed to say that it will not be a new favorite.
The first book begins in the 1930s, moves through World War II, and ends up in a “present-day” 1950s mystery in England. The pre-war and war years are told in flashback as background for what is happening “now.” During the war there was a group of recruits called the Magic Men (mostly made up of magicians by trade) who were deployed undercover to Norway to deceive and distract the Germans by building decoy camps, tanks, and aircraft carriers to make the enemy think there was a base of operations about which they should worry. In the present day, one of those people—Edgar Stephens—has gone on to become a police detective; a person associated with the war group has been brutally murdered, and Stephens is assigned to the case. It’s an odd one, employing a magical trick called the Zig Zag Girl, in which the magician’s assistant is apparently sliced into three parts, only to emerge whole at the end of the trick. (In the case of the murder, she has actually been dismembered.)
After a second person, also associated with the undercover war effort, turns up dead, Stephens and his friend Max Mephisto, a magician who still headlines in variety shows around Brighton where the murders have taken place, conclude that not only are the murders related, but that the other members of the group (including themselves) may be in danger. An effort is made to track them down and warn them, simultaneously checking to see if it could be one of them committing the murders.
The premise and the historical time period appealed to me, but there were so many flaws in this initial book that I doubt I will continue on to read another. The historical aspect is sketchy, and the timeline of the war itself doesn’t correspond to reality; the Norway campaign was in 1940, and in the book the group’s efforts there last only two years and a few months before the war ends, leaving out three years of World War II!
The police procedural elements of the book were likewise hard to believe: These are gruesome and high-profile murders (each based on a magic trick, so they were bound to have the media all over them, not to mention capturing the public’s imagination), yet the only people investigating them are one policeman, his assistant at the station, and his magician friend? It’s just too casual—even in the 1950s, there would have been some sort of investigative team. Most of the activities that, in a regular police procedural, would be featured and discussed (for instance, forensics) were merely dropped into narrative between the sole policeman and his civilian buddy, so that they seemed incidental rather than central to the case. Despite its being a murder mystery, there was more attention paid to the lifestyle of the traveling magician than there was to the murders!
Other than the two protagonists, the characters were thinly developed; perhaps the intent was to have you figure them out for yourself, but they just weren’t that interestingly presented, and some members of the Magic Men (even central ones) remained cardboard cutouts to the end. There wasn’t much scene-setting in terms of details about the era. The witness observations were repetitive and clumsy, and although the descriptions frustrated both the detective and the supposedly canny magician, I figured out “whodunnit” from them pretty early on in the book, and from there I was just reading to get to the big reveal.
If this book were a debut novel by a novice writer I might have been a bit more forgiving; but this is a skilled storyteller who has published 29 books and counting. My advice: Stick with Ruth Galloway, or try one of her Harbinder Kaur books. Perhaps the rest of the Brighton Mysteries are better than the initial one, but I don’t intend to investigate. There wasn’t enough zig-zag in this one to draw me further in.