A murdered British officer with ties to the World War II Secret Service, found with the ace of hearts, known as the blood card, on his chest. An open coffin containing the body of a gypsy fortune-teller, her hand clutching a similar playing card. How are they connected?
Enter two members of the former Magic Men, a special MI5 unit that served in the war effort, concocting trickeries to aid in the fight against the Nazis. Readers may already be familiar with Max and Edgar, who feature in author Elly Griffiths’ earlier books in this fantastical, intriguing series (The Zig Zag Girl, Smoke and Mirrors). In the latest, the exceptional The Blood Card, the pair once again delve into the world of illusion to discover what these deaths have in common.
It’s the 1950s, and former Magic Men member Max Mephisto is still hanging onto his career doing stage magic, even as the burgeoning era of television threatens to eclipse the popularity of live variety shows. Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens, also part of the core World War II group, is now on the Brighton police force, and the two old partners in espionage have nosed out a crime or two since that epic time.
Here they follow the aces to unravel the reason that Peter Cartwright, their former MI5 recruiter, has been murdered. Edgar takes his very first plane trip, visiting the United States to track down an American mesmerist who appears to be connected to Cartwright. When the American magician dies after a hit-and-run, and Edgar himself barely escapes the same fate, Max and Edgar realize they’ve stumbled onto something more than just a trick of fate.
Griffiths has a matter-of-fact, conversational way of setting her scenes, and effectively uses plain declarative sentences, making a mundane event often seem wildly off-beat. Her understated humor and sly comments just slide into the dialogue, augmenting the storyline while never overtaking it.
The upcoming coronation of a young Queen Elizabeth figures large in this story, and the author cleverly mixes magical deceptions with real-life espionage. The straightforward crime detection sometimes seems a bit downsized, surrounded by a gypsy funeral; backstage ghosts; subliminal messages; the eerie smell of lavender; and a classic case of misdirection involving a disappearing general. As Edgar so cogently asks, “But what was the trick and why had it been performed?”
The further adventures of Max and Edgar continue to enthrall, this time in service of queen and country.