The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths

The latest book in Elly Griffiths' Stephens and Mephisto series, The Vanishing Box might actually be my favourite of the four. It combines a gripping and really rather dark murder mystery with a strong sense of period atmosphere and immensely likeable characters in whom, after four books, I now feel strongly invested.

It's winter in 1950s Brighton and magician Max Mephisto is topping the bill at a variety theatre, supported by his daughter Ruby, a promising magician in her own right with whom Max now shares a brash young agent. Also on the bill along with the usual ventriloquists, comedians and performing poodles, is a 'tableau' act in which almost naked women pose motionless to recreate famous works of art - if they don't move, they aren't breaking any obscenity laws by being topless. Most of the tableau girls are sharing digs at a boarding house also occupied by some permanent residents, including a shy young florist called Lily. When Lily is found murdered in a grotesque parody of one of the tableaux, Max's best friend (and awkwardly, son-in-law-to-be) DI Edgar Stephens is summoned to investigate along with his loyal sergeants Bob and Emma.

The whodunnit plot that follows is an absorbing one, with numerous potential suspects and plenty of red herrings, but it's the development of the characters I enjoyed most, with one moment in particular almost bringing a tear to my eye. The previous novel in the series saw Emma Holmes fighting a bad case of unrequited love for Edgar, and this storyline continues into The Vanishing Box. Max's relationship with Ruby continues to be fascinating too - as much as he wants to be a father to her after years of being unaware of her existence, he also slightly resents sharing the limelight with her on stage and while he feels protective of her, his general tendency towards detachment makes him entertainingly objective when it comes to her faults.

This is a tremendously atmospheric read too - you can almost feel the freezing coastal wind whipping up the snowflakes along the promenade, and the theatre scenes are gloriously evocative of variety on the cusp of decline.

My only slight concern is that, unlike its predecessors, The Vanishing Box ends with very few unresolved character development issues, which makes me wonder if this is the last in the Stephens and Mephisto series. I hope it isn't, but if it is, it's certainly concluded on a high note.