I wasn’t enamoured of the last Ruth Galloway mystery I read, The Ghost Fields, though the previous one, The Outcast Dead, was one of my favourites. My moue of disappointment with The Ghost Fields didn’t deter me from plunging into another Ruth Galloway, The Woman In Blue. Griffiths’s Norfolk-set mystery series is one of my great comfort reads and I’ll never miss a one. I read many series (my favourite being, as you may well know by now, C. S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyrs), but the Ruth Galloways, though not cozies by far, offer a true comfort escape. Maybe it’s because Ruth reminds me of yours truly: living on her own for years, with a gourmandesque penchant for overeating, content with her books, work, and cat, Flint. Now somewhere along the way, Ruth manages (be warned, spoilers ahead, if you’re not up-to-date on the series) to have a tender, not-icky, one-night-stand with my second favourite series character, DCI Harry Nelson, fall in love but retain her proud independence (Nelson is married to the ethereally beautiful Michelle) and the result: the know-her-own-mind, mulish Kate, Ruth’s daughter, five in The Woman In Blue. Ruth teaches at North Norfolk University, has a vain peacock of a dislikeable boss, and is, in each book, embroiled, in her capacity as a forensic archaeologist, in a police murder investigation and once more, is close to her unrequited love, DCI Harry Nelson.
Griffiths peoples her narrative with a group of loveable characters. It isn’t enough that I practically glow with affection for Ruth and Harry. No, I love their friends and colleagues too, Harry’s massive, candy-bar-eating sergeant, Clough, affectionately, “Cloughie”; Ruth’s glamorously beautiful BFF, Shona; her friend, Cathbad, a druid; the irrepressible Kate; Cathbad’s wife and adorable kiddies; I can go on and on. Suffice to say, Griffiths has created characters whose work is important and they do it well. Her portrait of their professional lives, and the crime they solve in each novel, is balanced with glimpses into their personalities, lives, and relationships.
Griffiths’s best mysteries are the ones which are deeply immersed in lore, legend, ritual, and history. The Woman In Blue falls into this premise and makes it one of the stronger of the series. It’s set in Little Walsingham, Norfolk. (I googled it and it looks adorable and now I yearn to visit some day.) It’s a town known for its deep roots in the Catholic past and the subsequent transition to the Church of England. It opens, appropriately, with Cathbad, the druid, and former Catholic, who has a deep respect for the the things in heaven and on earth not known in our philosophy. Cathbad is house-sitting for a friend and caring for his aloof cat, Chesterton. One night, when Cathbad emerges from the ancient cottage, he sees a woman in blue. Given Walsingham’s fame for Marian worship and dedicated sites, Cathbad at first believes he’s had a vision of the Virgin Mary. Turns out, the next day, that what he saw was a beautiful young woman, a patient at a nearby addiction recovery clinic, now dead – murdered.
In the meanwhile, Ruth hears from an old uni friend, now a woman priest, who’s in Walsingham for a theological conference, and wants to meet Ruth. Hilary shares some nasty letters with Ruth, letters that threaten her with God’s wrath for having taken on a man’s role, that of female priest. With Chloe Jenkins murdered and Ruth’s friend under threat, Cathbad, Ruth, Harry, and his team are reunited once more to seek a killer who’s targeting beautiful women and possibly resentful of their incursion into ecclesiastical positions.
Griffiths is a thoughtful writer and her best books are not what I call mystery procedural: interviews, interviews, interviews, the detective serving like a puzzle solver. I find these quite tedious. The unfolding of Harry’s case, with due interference from Cathbad and Ruth, is coupled with Harry’s thoughts and considerations, as well as Ruth’s. What do they think about? Faith for one. Harry is a lapsed Catholic and Ruth came from a family of rigid evangelicals. And yet both are moved by the ritual they experience in Walsingham: they don’t have a revelation, or conversion, but they recognize the power of religious faith and the mystery at the heart of human experience. Even if they don’t believe, they consider the limitations of their own understanding.
At the same time, Ruth and Harry are people who want to right wrong and bring justice. They also ponder their relationship, nonexistent physically but still emotionally potent (they often also avoid thinking about what this potency means; obvious to this reader they belong together). Harry is a straight-and-narrow man, can’t believe he slept with Ruth, but responsible and stalwart. He wants to protect and preserve his marriage, but he also acknowledges that Ruth means something to him. And he loves their daughter Kate, “Katie” to him, a lovely tug-of-name-war he has with Ruth. Ruth admitted a long time ago (read “books” ago) she’s in love with Harry. She’s independent and strong and doesn’t dwell in self-pity. She gets on with her work, her daughter, her friends, her deep intellectual life. I think that’s why Harry is so taken by her. I don’t know if Griffiths will ever bring them together, but they’re perfect for each other.
Lastly, the novel’s last quarter was terrific; it’s worth it to read for that reason. The crime’s resolution (and there is a second murder too, another woman, if not “in blue”, close enough a connection to the Virgin Mary) takes place during a passion play, dramatic, moving, and with full team presence: Harry and his sergeants, Ruth, Cathbad. The novel’s dénouement, post-crime-solution, takes place during an Easter service, again, with all the characters I love present, a tender moment between Ruth and Harry, the consideration of mystery and miracle, and the genuine affection, nay love, the characters share. I loved every second I could eke of reading during two quite harried, zoom-filled work weeks. With Miss Austen, we say Griffiths’s Woman In Blue offers “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Elly Griffiths’s The Woman In Blue is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It was released in May 2016 and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, via Edelweiss+.