Monday, December 22, 2014

Review of The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths (Quercus, 2014)

When two thirds of a body are discovered in left luggage at Brighton station in the summer of 1950, DI Edgar Stephens is assigned to the case.  It appears that the woman was the victim of the Zig Zag Girl trick, whereby a magicians appears to slice a woman in three.  Shortly after the mid-section is sent directly to Edgar.  During the Second World War he had been a member of the Magic Men, a group of magicians tasked with inventing ways to deceive the enemy through illusions, until they were disbanded after a tragic accident.  Edgar turns to his friend, Max Mephisto, who was also a member of the group and is still on the variety circuit.  Max is reluctant to get involved until it is discovered that the dead girl is his former assistant.  Then another former member of the Magic Men is found dead, also staged to look like a magic trick gone wrong.  Aware that they and their former colleagues are under threat Edgar and Max try to unravel the identity of the killer before it’s too late.

I loved the title, cover and premise for The Zig Zag Girl, but was disappointed by the story itself.  I’ve liked Elly Griffiths ‘Ruth Galloway’ series and given my taste for fiction set in the 1930s-1950s, interest in police procedurals and tales relating to the Second World War, I had high hopes for the book.  However, the police procedural elements were unrealistic and the war-time aspects full of inaccuracies and fanciful ideas.  For example, the case concerns a high profile set of murders, yet the only people actively investigating them are a bumbling cop and his magician friend rather than a sizable investigative team.  Moreover, the police response to the threats is minimal, there are no meetings with media, and there is little senior management involvement.  A junior WAAF officer who pushes aircraft round a board in a control room is somehow promoted to head up a whole secret service section.  In Inverness the Magic Men build an aircraft carrier (called a battleship): somehow they can work on it to build it, but it is also so flimsy that a man can’t stand on it to send up a flare so they have to put a woman on it do that job (and she’s lowered on from an aircraft at a time when helicopters were extremely rare).  She shoots the flare, it lands on the very long ship (a few hundred feet) and it catches fire and somehow she can’t get off before it burns out as she’s obviously incapable of jumping into the sea.  The timeline of the war is foreshortened: a few months after the Norway campaign (1940) Edgar’s recruited into the secret service and sent to Inverness (p. 126); after two years there the company is disbanded and he works at a desk job for a couple of months waiting for the war to end (p. 271) -- somehow 3 years have disappeared.  I could go on.  Indeed, the plot in general relied on awkward plot devices and unlikely coincidences and the denouement was very weak.  Further, the narrative had minor continuity errors (e.g., on page 44 Edgar watches Charis die, on page 152 he is told two days later she is dead because he wasn’t there).  I don’t mind some fanciful details or logical inconsistencies in a story, but in this case there were just too many and the result was that I simply did not buy into the tale.  Overall, whilst the premise is interesting, the execution and attention to detail is not and my feeling is the book lacked research and it really needed the attention of a critical editor with domain knowledge of policing and the Second World War to remove/amend the most fanciful bits. 

4 comments:

Sarah said...

Interesting review. I have this on my shelf but I've not felt that inclined to pick it up even though, like you, I love the Ruth Gallowat series. Maybe I'll give it a go over Christmas.

classicmystery said...

Fascinating - just posted my own review of this one over at classicmystery.wordpress.com. I was willing to put aside the illogical points you mention above. Let's face it, you could pull apart a lot of detective fiction on those grounds. What disappointed me was the rather prosaic solution given that the book dealt with magic. Good enough for me to try the Ruth Galloway series but a little unsatisfying all the same.

Rob Kitchin said...

I agree that most crime fiction has some credibility issue that you can tug at - an obvious plot device or an investigation led by just two people - and I'm more than happy to go along with that. In this case though there were a dozen or more, some of them critical, that worked to completely undermine the story to the point that I didn't believe in any of it. I didn't list any more to avoid spoilers. It was a real shame as most of them were easily fixable, the others could have been resolved with a bit of work, and the premise was a good one. I agree that more could have been made of the magic angle in the denouement.

Rob Kitchin said...

Nice blog, btw. Have added it to my bloglist.