The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths

January 12, 2022

The Midnight Hour is the sixth book in Elly Griffiths’ mystery series set in Brighton, England, in the 1950s and 1960s, featuring magician Max Mephisto and police detective Edgar Stephens.  Griffiths is best known for the Ruth Galloway series and the award-winning mystery The Stranger Diaries, but this is also a wonderful series.  It explores the world of variety shows and, lately, film and television.  Max, who is really Lord Massingham, was a famous magician on the variety circuit in the 1950s.  After television began to take the place of variety shows, Max started to have a hard time finding engagements as a stage magician.  By 1965, when this novel takes place, he has become a film actor.  Edgar is an old friend of Max’s, ever since the two of them served in World War II in a unit called the Magic Men, which used magicians’ techniques of misdirection and optical illusion to deceive the Germans.

The first four books in the series were set in the 1950s.  With the fifth book, Now You See Them, the series took off in a new direction and moved ahead about ten years.  The focus, especially in the current volume, The Midnight Hour, has shifted from Edgar and Max to the female characters in the series: private detective Emma Holmes, who is Edgar’s wife, as well as Samantha “Sam” Collins, a journalist and Emma’s partner in the detective firm, and young police officer Meg Connolly.  I have also noticed that the series, which used to be called the Magic Men Series, is now called the Brighton Mysteries.

In this book, Verity Malone, a once-famous music hall performer, now retired, calls on Emma and Sam to investigate the murder of her husband, theatrical impresario Bert Billington.  His death appears natural at first, which is no surprise for a 90-year-old man who has a heart condition, but the postmortem reveals rat poison in his blood.  The couple has three sons: David, who inherits the family business, Seth, a film star, and Aaron, a mechanic.  Aaron, who was especially close to his father, accuses his mother of the murder.  Verity, an avid reader of The Feminine Mystique, believes in women’s rights and equality, and Aaron takes this to mean she no longer wants to take care of her husband.  To prove her innocence, Verity, who prefers to work with women, hires Emma and Sam.  When the police arrive, she prefers to talk to Meg instead of the more senior male officers.

The investigation begins as somewhat of a competition between the female private detectives and the police, which becomes somewhat awkward because Emma is the wife of the police superintendent, Edgar.  As readers of the previous volumes will know, Emma was once the up-and-coming star of the Brighton police, until she had to leave the police force after her marriage to Edgar.  At that time, married women were not allowed to serve in the police.  She missed being a detective and so she and her friend Sam have set up their own firm.  Eventually, Emma and Edgar agree that it would help both of them if they shared clues, and so the murder investigation becomes a collaboration, not a competition.

As it turns out, Bert Billington was a notorious womanizer, with a long list of ex-girlfriends who all have motives to kill him.  In particular, there was a tragedy in his past when he had an affair with a chorus girl named Glenda, who killed herself and her daughter when Bert left her for another woman.  Could someone in Glenda’s family be out for revenge?  Two of Bert’s sons also have motives: David because he wanted to take over the business, and Seth because he always hated his father. 

Max’s wife, film star Lydia Lamont, approaches Emma and offers to help with the investigation.  Emma wonders why at first, and then it turns out that Max has a past with Verity, and could possibly be Seth’s real father.  Max insists that the affair is long over, but someone claims to have seen Max and Verity together much more recently.  Is Lydia worried that Max has a motive to kill Bert?  Meanwhile, Max has been filming a Dracula movie with Seth, where Seth plays Dracula and Max plays Dracula’s father.  Someone remarks that they look like they could really be father and son.  Is that really the case?

The investigation becomes more complicated when Verity’s devoted assistant, Alma Saunders, is found murdered.  Did she know too much about Bert’s murder?  Alma might have had an affair with Bert, but Verity insists she didn’t, that her friend would never betray her by having an affair with her husband.  A mysterious woman in brown was seen at both murder sites.  Is she the murderer, or is this a case of misdirection?  Griffiths keeps you guessing until the very end.

This is a wonderful mystery, with an engaging cast of characters.  My favorite character is Emma.  She is brilliant, and has ways of seeing patterns in the evidence that no one else can figure out.  The young police detective, Meg Connolly, really comes into her own in this book, and is a great addition to the series.  She is meant to be a contrast to Emma, in both her background and physical appearance: Emma is from an upper-class British family, while Meg is from a working-class Irish family, and Emma is short and blond while Meg is tall and dark-haired.  Meg is somewhat envious of Emma at first, because, as a female police officer, she is always being compared to her and fears that she is falling short.  Emma is also a bit resentful of Meg because, as an unmarried woman, Meg is allowed to remain in the police while Emma is not.  When they work together, though, the two women come to appreciate each other.  The series is excellent at illustrating the problems faced by female police officers in England at the time.  They were not allowed to drive police cars, and they were always given domestic tasks to do, such as making tea.

I enjoy these books very much, and I’m looking forward to the next one.  The Midnight Hour can stand on its own, but for the best enjoyment, it’s probably better to have read at least the previous book, Now You See Them.  The characters’ backgrounds are important to the series, though, and I’d recommend starting with the first book, The Zig Zag Girl, even though Emma is not introduced until later.  As I said above, the series is much more focused on Max and Edgar in the early books, and only lately has the emphasis shifted to Emma and Meg.  No matter where you start, though, I highly recommend the series.

The Midnight Hour is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.