Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths

review by Maryom
"Christmas 1953. Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby are headlining Brighton Hippodrome, an achievement only slightly marred by the less-than-savoury support act: a tableau show of naked 'living statues'. This might appear to have nothing in common with DI Edgar Stephens' investigation into the death of a quiet flowerseller, but if there's one thing the old comrades have learned it's that, in Brighton, the line between art and life - and death - is all too easily blurred..."

This fourth Stephens and Mephisto mystery takes the reader to a snowy 1950s Brighton, where, as always when these two old army comrades are together, the glamour of theatre life rubs shoulders with murder. In her boarding-house room, Lily Burtenshaw's body is found, posed to resemble a famous painting of an historical event. Only nineteen years old, Lily was a quiet, shy girl, who worked at a local flowershop, but the positioning of her dead body bears a resemblance to the 'tableaux' presented by the 'living statues' act currently engaged at the Hippodrome Theatre. Surely there couldn't be a connection between them? Maybe Lily was mistakenly killed by someone who assumed she was one of the female performers temporarily staying at the same boarding-house? It's a disturbing, unlikely crime for Brighton, and the leads uncovered by DI Edgar Stephens seem to take him only to blind alleys. Max meanwhile has been befriended by one of the 'living statues', an unlikely move given their respective ages, and one which he treats with a degree of scepticism, but maybe this young, attractive woman can shed light on the identity of Lily's murderer ...

Elly Griffiths has again transported the reader back to a time which feels like it ought to be gentler and more innocent - after all, it snows for Christmas - but seems more to balance on a knife-edge between glamorous and sordid - the (almost) nude performers are only allowed if they stand rigidly still, complying with a ruling which deems them 'artistic' rather than 'rude'. Human nature being what it is though, particularly in crime novels, someone always finds themselves driven to murder.

After an excess of psychological thrillers and domestic noir, I'm finding myself increasingly drawn back to the whodunnit school of crime fiction - perhaps because it's presented more as a puzzle to solve. Someone is murdered, the police, perhaps with the assistance of an interested 'bystander' such as Miss Marple or Max Mephisto, set about finding the culprit, and, after a number of dead ends and red herrings, find him or her. That's not to say there isn't tension, but it's not the over the top nerve-racking suspense of a psychological thriller. Elly Griffiths' stories fit me perfectly, whether the Ruth Galloway series mixing archaeology and murder in modern-day Norfolk, or this Stephens and Mephisto '50s set series.
There's a nice balance between the two aspects of the story - the crime-solving and the personal lives of the 'regular' characters - which makes this possible to read as a stand-alone novel while it fits into a longer story-arc of the characters personal lives - and much as in the Ruth Galloway series, it's difficult to anticipate which route those lives will take.

Maryom's review - 4.5 stars 
Publisher -
Genre - adult historical crime

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