The Zig-Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

I've been a huge fan of Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series for years but until now I hadn't got round to reading her other crime novels, set in 1950s Brighton and featuring police detective Edgar Stephens and stage magician Max Mephisto.
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The Zig Zag Girl is the first book in the Stephens & Mephisto series and opens with the surprisingly gruesome discovery of a dismembered woman, a former assistant of Max Mephisto's who has been cut into pieces in a grotesque real-life recreation of the famous 'sawing a woman in half' trick familiar to anyone who has ever seen a traditional stage magic act. Edgar knows Max from the days when they were both part of a war-time intelligence unit known as The Magic Men, creating illusions and decoys to fool the enemy. Their war-time escapades ended in tragedy and they've been estranged since then, but they form an uneasy partnership when it becomes clear that other members of The Magic Men are being drawn into the killer's vicious cat-and-mouse game.

Although the crime plot of The Zig-Zag Girl is clever and engaging, the characters are the real strength of this book. Edgar and Max are fully fleshed-out, convincing characters with interesting back-stories and complex motivations, and while they are very different, this isn't a stereotypical 'odd couple' pairing. The supporting characters are also vividly realised - I particularly enjoyed Edgar's mother, for whom Edgar is somehow simultaneously a disappointment for doing too well (he went to Oxford) and for not doing well enough (he's a policeman), and the elderly conjuror Diablo, who gives Max a depressing glimpse of what his own future might be like if variety continues to lose audiences to straight theatre - a new play called The Mousetrap seems to be a bigger draw than comedians and magicians.

Brighton's seafront, boarding houses and theatres all lend a strong sense of location to the action, and the period atmosphere is spot-on too. The plot - like those of the Ruth Galloway series - is a little crazy and perhaps not for you if you insist on non-stop gritty realism, but I thought it was great fun. There's a real vibrancy to this book and it feels fresh and original. I'm looking forward to reading the next in the series.