Brighton, 1950: When the body of a girl is found, cut into three, Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is reminded of a magic trick: the Zig Zag Girl. The inventor of the trick, Max Mephisto, is an old friend of Edgar's. They served together in the war as part of a shadowy unit called the Magic Men. Max is still on the circuit, touring seaside towns in the company of ventriloquists, sword-swallowers, and dancing girls.
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Brighton, 1951. Pantomime season is in full swing on the snowy pier, with Max Mephisto starring in Aladdin. But Max's headlines have been stolen by the disappearance of two local children. With fairy tales in the air, it's not long before the press have found a nickname for the case: 'Hansel and Gretel'. DI Edgar Stephens has plenty of leads to investigate. The missing girl, Annie, used to write plays and perform them with her friends.
Elizabeth II's coronation is looming, but the murder of their wartime commander, Colonel Cartwright, spoils the happy mood for DI Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto. A playbill featuring another deceased comrade is found in Colonel Cartwright's possession, and a playing card, the ace of hearts: the blood card. The wartime connection and the suggestion of magic are enough for him to put Stephens and Mephisto on the case.