A police inspector and a stage magician team up to investigate the murder of their old wartime commander as well as a possibly related case of the suspicious death of a local gypsy fortune-teller in The Blood Card, the third book in the Magic Men Mysteries series by Elly Griffiths.
It’s May 1953, and all of London is prepping for the imminent coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is busy investigating the death of Madame Zabini, a local gypsy psychic whose body had washed up by the pier, while nearby his best friend and old World War II buddy, the famous magician Max Mephisto, prepares for a prominent two-week run at the Theatre Royal during a time when people more and more are staying home to get their entertainment via television. The two friends are then summoned together by General Petre to the scene of the murder of Colonel Peter Cartwright, the man who had recruited them into the Magic Men, a top secret wartime espionage unit.
Turns out, just before he died, Cartwright had made a breakthrough in his investigation of an anarchist group planning to disrupt the upcoming coronation. The General thought to call the Magic Men in because of the so-called “magic” connection amongst the items at the crime scene, including an Ace of Hearts playing card “” the title “Blood Card” “” next to the body, along with a newspaper clipping about a mesmerist who caused a woman to faint at a mind-reading exhibition in Albany, NY and an old show flyer for Tony “The Mind” Mulholland, a magician and member of the Magic Men who had been murdered by a serial killer three years prior.
Edgar then heads off to America to track down the mesmerist, leaving his dependable sergeant Emma Holmes to follow-up on the fortune-teller case, which might have a connection to Cartwright. Meanwhile, Max returns to London to prepare for his performances, including an appearance on a coronation-day variety television show, where he’ll share the stage with his daughter Ruby, a fellow magician who’s also Edgar’s fiancee. Unfortunately, it looks like that anarchist group might have plans to take out the televised variety show, too.
Even though I hadn’t read the previous Magic Men books, I was able to jump right into this new mystery without getting lost. Griffiths reintroduces the characters and their connections in an interesting way, though I do wonder if I missed out on some serious Magic Men adventures. It didn’t hinder my ability to enjoy the new book or understand the plot, but it does make me want to read the previous two books to witness how it all began.
In The Blood Card, Griffiths presents mysteries on several fronts, with a lot of information to digest as the clues begin to interweave, so it can become overwhelming. But thankfully, the author has the characters work through details together, reiterating what they already know as they come to realizations. Though, admittedly, I did need to reread some portions, especially after some of the big reveals.
Though Max and Edgar’s respective storylines get equal time here, I got the impression that the former is actually supposed to be the main character of the Magic Men Mysteries, thanks to the continuing magic theme. But in The Blood Card, it felt like Max wasn’t really a part of the sleuthing. He was too busy preparing for his big television break and interacting with his daughter, while Edgar was having his first American adventure, leaving his capable subordinate Sergeant Holmes to pick up the mystery mantle.
Griffiths paints a vivid picture of 1953 London, with its big city lights, nighttime hustle and bustle, and all of its coronation excitement, and juxtaposes it with the more small-town life in Albany in America. With the series based in England, it was fun to see Edgar out of his element in a new country and interacting with the people of New York (which is my home state). Though the two locations are an ocean apart, they do have something major in common: the people’s new fascination with television. The theme of the rise of television and how performers and their audiences are adjusting to this new medium is heavily explored.
A more underlying theme presented throughout the book is the role of women at home and in the workplace. We meet several society ladies and see how their lives differ from that of Ruby and Emma, who have delayed marriage in order to focus on their careers. Even the investigation of the gypsy fortune-teller reveals the female-centric power structure of the Romany people. And all of this plays out against the backdrop of a country preparing to crown a woman as the new sovereign, a situation not everyone is comfortable with.
The Blood Card is a true delight, with extremely likable characters and multiple interconnected mysteries occurring during the rise in popularity of television, the societal pressure on women to abandon their careers, and the dawn of the second Elizabethan age.
A note on the cover: I actually read the hardcover edition, which comes in a smaller 5.5 x 8.5 size, similar to a trade paperback, and the typeface was large and well-spaced. All of this made it much easier to read, I feel. Also, I think that the cover “” with jacket design and illustration by Paul Blow “” is adorable. The cartoonish illustration of Cartwright with a knife in his chest, the heart-shaped first “O” in “Blood” with Ruby peering out of it, and the Magic Men top hat logo at top lets us know that although this is a murder mystery, it’s a more light-hearted read. The previous two books, as well as the upcoming fourth book, have similar designs, which I find so attractive that I plan to get the other books in hardcover so I can have a complete matching collection. (The paperback has the same cover, but since I started with hardcover, I’m going to continue with it.) I think these covers are something that fans of mystery novels, as well as book collectors, will really appreciate.