Smoke and Mirrors is the second book in a wonderful crime series by author Elly Griffiths, who also writes the equally entrancing Ruth Galloway mysteries. Smoke follows the series debut, The Zig Zag Girl, published in 2015.
In the early 1950s, Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens, now on the Brighton police force, and stage magician Max Mephisto are part of a core of men who formerly served in a special unit in World War II, working with Britain’s MI5 intelligence service to deceive the enemy through various trickeries and illusions. Readers meet several members of the small team of “Magic Men” in this and the earlier book, as Griffiths creates an imaginative, tightly constructed storyline with all sorts of intriguing possibilities for future adventures.
In Smoke and Mirrors, children’s fairy tales take a gruesome turn when two missing children are found dead in the woods in a parody of the Hansel and Gretel story, their bodies marked by a trail of candy. The victims appear to be part of a group of youngsters who are turning classic fairy tales upside down and creating their own spin on the plots, then enacting them at a homegrown children’s theater. One of the victims, 11-year-old Annie Francis, appears to be the creative mind behind the stories, inspired perhaps by her grammar school teacher, Miss Young, whose imagination may be outpacing her good judgment.
The bizarre murder takes place against the backdrop of a professional theater performance of Aladdin, a Christmas pantomime featuring Max Mephisto himself, but it brings up a creepy coincidence: Thirty-nine years earlier, a young girl was murdered not far away, in a theater production of the children’s tale Babes in the Wood, and at least one of the current actors in Aladdin—another member of the Magic Men—was in that 1916 production, when the children’s tale likewise turned dark and tragic.
Griffiths’ exceptional and subtle sense of humor sometimes contrasts—or places heightened emphasis—on scenes that depict cruel and tawdry acts. In a way, there are few innocents in this tale. Everyone is interconnected, and even the victims’ motives may be cloudy. An inventive backstory and threads of connection elevate the story above the ordinary run of mystery novels.