As I mentioned in a previous post, when I had an Audible account, I listened to Elly Griffiths’s first three Ruth Galloway mysteries. Recently, I read #4, A Room Full of Bones, and it may be my favourite yet. (I have the rest stacked and ready to go all the way to the most recent, #11, The Stone Circle. I’m hooked, yes, and a fan.) Like her standalone mystery, The Stranger Diaries, Griffiths has a winning combination of elements: a likeable, detecting, female lead, literary and genre allusions to make a reader smile fondly, a snappy style, smooth voice, moreover in the third person (my preference), and a great balance between the central mystery (the variable) and the personal lives of her detecting team (the given). That combination of original material with the steady thread of a group of compelling characters can see me follow a detecting series for years (witness my love for and obsession with C. S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr Regency mysteries, all the elements of Griffiths’s within a historical setting). Griffiths’s protagonist, Ruth Galloway, is an academic, a forensic archaeologist professor at North Norfolk University, who’s drawn again and again, thanks to her “bones” expertise, into police cases headed by DCI Harry Nelson of the Norfolk police and his team members.
I adore Griffiths’s Ruth, a feral spinster through and through, who lives a beautifully hermetic life, outside the classroom, dig, and police case, on the North Norfolk saltmarshes. With every book, Ruth’s feral spinsterhood is narrowed by more and more relationships, some positive, most still challenging and compelling to navigate, but Ruth never loses her preferred evening’s entertainment of a glass of wine and some telly, in her own company. Though Ruth dominates Griffiths’s mysteries, DCI Harry Nelson, gruff, short-tempered, huge, street-smart, un-PC as a copper can be, smart, cunning, uses up a lot of page oxygen and makes for as compelling a lead as Ruth. They make a great pair: Ruth’s methodical bone knowledge, her diffidence, care, and intelligence, attention to detail, her knowledge, make a splendid counterpart to Nelson’s brass-tacks attitude, his snap-to-it commanding, impatient, curt, and abrupt presence. One never doubts, however, how Galloway and Nelsom are dedicated to sussing out truth and exacting what justice can be had from complicated, nuanced cases.
I also find the cases Ruth is drawn into engaging. They often involve historical, archaeological, anthropological, and cultural background I find most interesting. Book #3, for example, involves the appearance of bones from World War II. If you’re a romance reader, you’ll understand when I say it reminded me somewhat of Suzanne Brockmann’s The Unsung Hero. In A Room Full of Bones, Harry and Ruth’s case involves the repatriation of bones to Australian Aboriginal communities, drug-running, animal-rights activists, women’s religious roles, colonialism’s legacies, the exhumation of a medieval Norwich bishop (with connections to my beloved Julian of Norwich, and enough discussion of anchoresses to satisfy my theological, historical, and feminist interests), and always in the centre, Ruth’s Druid friend, Cathbad. I find Cathbad the least likeable of Griffiths’s series characters (unlike DSs Johnson and Clough, Nelson’s team members); he’s over-the-top and brings an element of woo-woo that proves fey once too often.
What will see me return to the series again and again, however, are Harry and Ruth and their complicated relationship, loving, antagonistic, part-friendship, part-love-affair, part-true-compatible-partnership, Kate’s struggle to be a good mother to temperamental Kate, Ruth’s colleagues, friends, parents, and the people she encounters with every case. In turn, Harry is as cogent a character and everything he brings with him: his working-class background, his stunning, loving wife Michelle, his daughters, his workaholism, his brusqueness and curmudgeonly ‘tude.
I also love Griffiths’s use of allusion and her succinct style. You need not understand every reference in the following to appreciate what Griffiths’s can do with a passage. Here, Ruth has arrived to give a lecture at her North Norfolk University, but her head is whirling with all the elements of the police case before her:
… as she gathers up her papers and bag and heads towards the Natural Sciences, her head is swirling with words and images. Cathbad and Judy in her bed, the snow falling outside. Lord Smith in the attic rooms at the museum, telling her about his great-grandfather’s collection. There’s some wonderful stuff. We’ve got some of it in the museum downstairs: snakeskins, dingo traps, branding irons … Janet Meadows telling her about Bishop Augustine. Sometimes in the morning he was black and blue after having tussled with the devil all night. The statue with its stone foot on a snake. Nelson’s face when he first saw Kate. Standing in the maternity ward with Michelle beside him. Fireworks exploding in the night sky. Cathbad grinning at her across the table. You should point the bone at him, Bob. Bob’s face, so different when he isn’t smiling. He’s dead now. The ancestors are powerful. Ted chomping his pizza. Maybe the devil was about to have his revenge. The skulls, the sightless eyes. The room full of bones.
Griffiths creates two contrasting “voices”: one is Ruth’s, as you can read above; the other is Harry’s. While Ruth is trying to process all the confusing elements of the case, Harry is waiting in a sauna to meet an informant (shades of Crononberg’s Eastern Promises and one of my favourite films; I was scared for Harry, but all’s well that ends well):
Nelson is in a sauna. It’s not his preferred way of spending the time. Michelle loves all the gym stuff — exercise classes, Jacuzzi, aquarobics, the lot — but he finds it all rather embarrassing. He likes a swim (as a teenager he had a holiday job as a lifeguard) but that’s about it. He hates the recycled air, the recycled music, the little bottles of shampoo that smell like a Thai meal, the fluffy towels, the frothy coffee. He hates the women in their designer sportswear; they make him feel both lustful and disapproving, an uneasy combination … But today’s visit is business, not pleasure. Nelson has a meeting with Jimmy Olsen, his informant.
Two distinct, complementary voices, two compatible, yet opposites-attract protagonists. I love them and look forward to see where they’ll take me in the next seven books. (Happy to say, an eighth is projected for 2020.)