The Great Deceiver by Elly Griffiths: intriguing, multi-layered and full of rich period detail – book review –

Magician Max Mephisto might now be divorced from his film actress wife Lydia Lamont and living in London but dark events in Brighton – the seaside town he knows well – are about to lure him back.
The Great Deceiver by Elly GriffithsThe Great Deceiver by Elly Griffiths
The Great Deceiver by Elly Griffiths

If you haven’t already been swept away to the shadowy corners of one of the south coast’s busiest and most vibrant resorts in the Sixties, then now would be an excellent time to discover the sheer mastery of this cerebral and beguiling series.

The Great Deceiver is the latest book in the gripping Brighton Mysteries series and comes from the pen of Elly Griffiths, an accomplished and elegant contemporary crime writer whose work includes the award-winning, Norfolk-based Dr Ruth Galloway series, featuring a forensic archaeologist, which ended on a high this year.

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Griffiths has the gift of blending cosy, clever, character-driven murder mysteries with acute social observation, a superbly evoked sense of time and place, and the kind of immaculate detective work and plotting which harks back to the golden age of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Josephine Tey.

These charming stories centre on a group of Second World War friends who once served together as part of a shadowy unit called the Magic Men, using their knowledge of stage magic techniques to aid the war effort, and were inspired partly by her grandfather’s life on the stage.

It’s April of 1966 and Max, now a Hollywood film actor, is in London on his way to visit daughter Ruby, star of Magic Ruby, the most popular TV show in Britain, and her new-born baby girl when he is hailed by a voice from the past... fellow performer Ted English, better known as the Great Deceiver.

Ted’s assistant, Cherry Underwood, has been found dead in her Brighton boarding house and he is convinced that he will be accused of her murder. Max agrees to talk to one of his Magic Men pals, Edgar Stephens, now a police superintendent in Brighton, who is investigating the case.

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What Max doesn’t know is that the girl’s family have hired private detective duo – Emma Holmes, Edgar’s former police sergeant and now his wife, and local journalist Sam Collins – to do some digging of their own.

What they discover is that the inhabitants of the boarding house – most of whom are performing in an Old Time Music Hall show on Brighton pier – are a motley crew and the house is also connected to a sinister radio personality called Pal.

When a second magician’s assistant is killed, Edgar suspects a serial killer and he persuades Max to come out of semi-retirement and take part in a summer show. But when they try to find a woman to pose as his assistant, Edgar shocks the team by recommending someone close...

Griffiths’ sleight of hand is a work of magic in itself as she conjures up the edgy and gaudy atmosphere of Brighton in the Sixties… a place of exciting new beginnings but still home to performers from a very different age.

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In trademark style, Griffiths’ plotting is intriguing, multi-layered and full of rich period detail with each character honed to perfection, the social backdrop immaculately researched, and topical issues explored with subtlety and authenticity.

Add on a dash of dark humour, and a thrilling dénouement, and fans old and new will already be queueing for the next instalment.

(Quercus, hardback, £22)

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