Writing a gripping mystery is a lot like performing a masterful magic trick—knowing when to grab the audience’s attention, when to provide distractions and how to wrap it all up with a dazzling finale.
British mystery master Elly Griffiths enters the world of illusionists with The Zig Zag Girl, the first in a new series that has us looking behind the curtain in a whole new way.
One of Griffiths' grandfather's playbills: Dennis Lawes "on laughter service."
Tell us a little about the World War II Magic Gang that inspired this new series—including your own family connection.
My granddad, Frederick Goodwin (stage name Dennis Lawes), was a music hall comedian, modestly famous between the wars. Granddad was often on the bill with a well-known magician called Jasper Maskelyne. During the Second World War, Maskelyne was a part of a group called the Magic Gang, recruited for their skills in camouflage and stage magic. The Magic Gang were based in North Africa where they created dummy tanks, ghostly platoons and a fake battleship called HMS Houdin. I’ve adapted some of these escapades for the Magic Men in The Zig Zag Girl.
The Magic Men are flamboyant showmen, very different from what fans might expect from the creator of Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist. What drew you to these characters?
I was passionate about acting at school and university and would have loved to pursue it as a career. But I was drawn to the world of music hall by my grandfather and—more specifically—by the playbills that he left me in his will. These bills are a treasure trove of long-forgotten acts: Lavanda’s Feats with the Feet, Lou Lenny and her Unrideable Mule, Raydini the Gay Deceiver. I knew that one day I would have to write about them.
How was it different to write about 1950s Brighton than the Norfolk marshes featured in your Ruth Galloway series?
I’ve lived in Brighton since I was 5, so in some ways it was a lot easier. If I needed to research a location I’d just pop out and have a look. But in other ways it was more difficult. I think there is something to be said for writing about somewhere slightly alien to you. I spent a lot of time in Norfolk as a child, but it still seems huge and slightly frightening. I almost know Brighton too well, and it’s a safe and happy place for me. However, the 1950s setting helped make it seem more mysterious.
Some of the murders here are pretty gruesome, yet the book doesn’t have a dark tone. Do you consider it important to focus on the optimism of your investigators rather than the depravity of the villain?
The Zig Zag Girl definitely contains my more gruesome murders to date! However, I don’t like writing—or reading—about gratuitous violence. I haven’t described any of the crimes in too much detail, and I have tried to lighten things up with a bit of humor here and there. For me, it’s important to focus on the characters and not on the mechanics of murder.
Is the charismatic Max Mephisto based on a particular magician?
His career is based on Jasper Maskelyne’s. However, I think Max also owes a bit to my father and grandfather—both handsome, urbane, charming men. My grandfather had three wives—all dancers—and was still a debonair man-about-town in his 80s.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Zig Zag Girl.