A comparison of the first two books in Elly Griffiths’s ‘Magic Men’ series
I love a good mystery.
My taste is pretty narrowly tuned to mysteries that keep me intrigued, while not crossing the line into the thriller or horror categories. I want to be scared, but not sleeplessly terrified. My go-to for such stories are those by Agatha Christie, whom I consider to be the queen of mystery. I’ve read at least a dozen of her novels, and I’ve always been wrong about the who, why, and when of the murder.
I’ve previously written about her work here.The Author Who Keeps My Imagination AliveAgatha Christie’s prolific writing career and its impact on my lifebaos.pub
With Christie’s work as my personal bar for what makes a good mystery, I picked up Elly Griffiths’s The Zig Zag Girl and Smoke and Mirrors from the library. I was searching for a fun book after having finished a dense biography about Sandra Day O’Connor and noticed them on a shelf in the mystery section.Why Evan Thomas’s ‘First’ Belongs on Your BookshelfA testament to powerful women written in a way that humanizes themmedium.com
Now that I’ve read these two, and just discovered that there are three more published in the series, they are worth comparing against each other before I move on to reading the next.
‘The Zig Zag Girl’
The Zig Zag Girl is the first in Griffiths’s series based on a fictitious military group called The Magic Men, who during World War II used various magic tricks and stage skills to trick the enemy into believing a portion of the UK was fiercely guarded in order to discourage attempted occupation. The small group was made up of British stage magicians and a straight-shooting army man named Edgar Stephens.
Stephens’s ties to The Magic Men are the center plot point of this first book, and his old friend Max Mephisto the great magician arrives at his side to help connect the dots in a murder case. Max was also a member of The Magic Men, and so helps Edgar trace the crime back to the group and its past.
Griffiths is a great storyteller, and this is partially due to a steady reveal of details. It isn’t until the mid-point of the book that the wartime memories shared by Edgar, Max, and the gang are visited in full detail. Until then, there are hints and snapshots of memories that guide the reader into a greater understanding of the main characters.
However, there were points when I felt that the tedious nature of the storytelling was not serving a purpose. It felt too drawn out at times without enough juicy material to justify the long journey to get there.
But, my main issue with this first installment was that I correctly guessed the murderer’s identity halfway through the book. After this point, there were no other significant possibilities to lead me away from my guess, and being right at the end wasn’t very satisfying.
The problem was that there were too many superfluous details meant to be distracting, but they were easy to identify as unimportant false trails.
In any good mystery, many erroneous leads are necessary to keep the reader guessing. Each new detail should cause our attention to swivel away from our last theory because the meatiness of this new discovery is too good to pass over.
There were certainly attempts at misdirection, but the focus was too heavy on attempting to convince the reader that the actual solution couldn’t possibly be the answer. The focus on getting the reader to see how impossible the answer was was too heavy-handed, and in turn, convinced me to keep my mind centered on the main point.
Overall, the construction of the story (and the lives of the characters) was well done. I felt that I had gotten to know the characters well, and the story is told from two perspectives- Max’s and Edgar’s. I liked this switching of storytellers because it allowed me to see details that Max saw and Edgar didn’t, giving me the opportunity to put the pieces together with them.
Although disappointed at guessing the murderer, there was still a surprise at the end that was unexpected and satisfying.
This first book in the series struck me as underwhelming and playing at being a good mystery, but couldn’t quite get there.
‘Smoke and Mirrors’
Despite the less imaginative title, Smoke and Mirrors proved to be a much more accomplished work of mystery. It was as if Griffiths understood what she had executed poorly in its predecessor and learned new skills to make this second novel stand taller.
The main characters, Max and Edgar, remain the same. There are certain plot points that carry over into this sequel from The Zig Zag Girl, but not so many that a new reader couldn’t pick this up on its own and enjoy it.
First off, there was a shift in the storytelling. Griffiths moved from telling the story from just two characters’ perspectives to including four altogether- Max, Edgar, and two of Edgar’s police sergeants, Emma and Bob. Bob was a background character in the first book but is now more involved as both an active character and storyteller. Emma is new to this book but fits in smoothly with the cast.
I enjoyed this expanded list of character perspectives and felt that it brought a freshness to Griffiths’s style. On the downside, Max was less involved than he was in the first book and this was a disappointment for me.
With the addition of two other police perspectives (Edgar is a detective policeman), we gain a fuller picture of the investigation. This is especially helpful because, in this book, Griffiths stepped up her mystery game exponentially.
This time, I was properly stumped.
And what impressed me the most was that in the final pages, as the police characters are hurrying to interview a suspect, she still pulls off a surprise. I couldn’t believe that she had successfully convinced me of one conclusion and ripped it out from under me with just 20 pages to go. That takes some skill.
The story itself was much more complex than in The Zig Zag Girl, thus making it more plausible to see every possible suspect as a murderer. This case had many layers and characters who played active parts, different from the prequel where many characters were too passive and easily dismissed. Similarly, Griffiths made her details better connected and more serious than in The Zig Zag Girl. These, too could not be so easily dismissed.
The relationships between the characters continued to grow in this installment, and there is a deeper understanding and appreciation gained for Edgar Stephens as he struggles to catch the killer.
Additionally, the reveal at the end was much more satisfying than in the first book. There seems to be much more thought put into this storyline and it makes me excited to read the third!
It is clear that Elly Griffiths has a knack for storytelling and character development. Her opening novel of The Magic Men series was underwhelming, but her skills developed to bring a sequel that packed a punch.
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