If there’s one thing I love about being on summer break, it’s catching up on my favourite contemporary mystery series, Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway. If you haven’t read them, what are you waiting for when you can have the perfect combination of archaeological (bones!) detail, northern England coastal descriptions, a wonderful, smart, funny heroine, a broody, old-fashioned-copper hero, his engaging team, and literary allusions, wonderful writing, great pacing? With every mystery, Griffiths intertwines it with parallel literary references; needless to say, I love this. In The Chalk Pit, Ruth’s daughter, Kate, has a tiny part in an Alice In Wonderland production. Alice, with its subterranean nightmarish surrealism, reflects Ruth’s recent excavations in Norwich’s chalky tunnels, the world of people who “sleep rough”, lives swept under the rug by society, and DCI Harry Nelson’s pursuit of those who are murdering them and snatching, “disappearing”, Norfolk’s women. The blurb provides further details:
Far below Norwich is a maze of old mining tunnels. When Ruth Galloway is called to examine a set of human remains in one of them, she notices the bones are almost translucent, a sign they were boiled soon after death. Once more, she’s at the helm of a murder investigation. Meanwhile, DCI Nelson is looking for a homeless woman who he hears has gone “underground.” Could she have disappeared into the labyrinth? And if so, is she connected to the body Ruth found? As Ruth and Nelson investigate the tunnels, they hear rumors of secret societies, cannibalism, and ritual killings. And when a dead body is found with a map of what seems to be the full maze, they realize their hunt for the killer has only just begun—and that more bodies may be underfoot.
While this description does credit to Griffiths’s mystery, it doesn’t capture what the series’s fans enjoy as much: the complex relationship between Ruth and Harry, Griffiths’s shifting perspectives as investigations occur, making the mystery more compelling, the likeable secondary characters with fully-formed personalities, including the children, and Griffiths’s ability to create fascinating, multiple settings, whether police headquarters and its interview rooms, Ruth’s isolated coastal cottage, a school-playground, a cathedral, a homeless drop-in centre and shelter, a hospital waiting-room, and a narrative seamlessly immersive in action and introspective in the glimpses we get of the characters’ inner lives.
Griffiths’s combination of mystery with the personal lives of familiar sleuthing characters is my preferred mystery writing. I’m not a fan of the procedural when it’s only made up of procedure. When the novel opens, for example, Nelson is on a “speed awareness course”, though he amusingly continues to drive fast though not recklessly. I loved this little detail about where Nelson is in his life and it’s a great example of Griffiths’s ability to create a voice for her characters (though still writing in my preferred third person): “Yes, not content with giving him a tangled love life and a stressful working life, God has now delivered the biggest blow of all. Nelson has a woman boss.” Which makes Nelson sound like a bit of a patriarchal a-hole. He’s not and said boss is a new police team member with a rich characterization. Griffiths’s philosophy on that front is always to give you enough to cement an impression and then show you that appearances are not what they seem.
Other than being immersed with beloved characters and a compelling mystery plot, Griffiths offers a sympathetic portrait of the rough sleepers, not stereotypes of addiction, but people who had lives and went terribly wrong, not willfully, but circumstantially. Griffiths doesn’t moralize, or wag fingers, but paints a sympathetic, three-dimensional picture. The cops who meet them daily, like Harry’s team, Judy Johnson especially, try to honour their lives and treat their disappearance with the same attention and importance as the middle-class women who begin to disappear.
[Series spoilers ahead] Another compelling aspect to Griffith’s series that may pass “under the radar” (it’s all subterranean references for this baby) is Ruth and Nelson’s unique relationship. Yes, there’s history there and it has “romance” woven into it, but what I love in addition to the amour, is Ruth and Nelson’s contrasting views of the past. Nelson is a full-speed ahead guy. He’s thoughtful, smart, and honourable (despite the Ruth affair), but he pursues justice, honouring the past only insofar as it holds the key to bringing about justice in the present. Ruth, on the other hand, is an archaeologist and has a fascination and deep respect for how the historical past, down to our ancestral DNA, continues to announce itself in our lives and inserts itself into every case. Without giving anything away, a passage I loved which sees Ruth home to visit with her ailing mother and a night spent in her child and teen-age-self room:
Ruth lies in her childhood bed in South London. The shrouded shape of her mother’s sewing machine looms in the darkness but, otherwise, it is still recognisably her teenage hideaway. The room has been painted a tasteful magnolia and the posters of Bruce Springsteen (‘Born in the USA’ era) and the Che Guevara have been taken down but Ruth’s books still fill the white-painted bookcase and she can just make out the silhouettes of her stickers on the wardrobe. She has already searched for something to read and has come up with Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy. There is a whole shelf of Heyers plus sundry Jilly Coopers and a scattering of hardback classics, probably given as prizes in school. There’s also Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which she studied for A Level, and several books about the Tudors, who had dominated her history syllabus. Henry VIII grew up near here, at Eltham Palace. As a child she found it hard to equate Tudor magnificence with seventies suburbia. But now she knows better. Now she knows history is everywhere.
Ruth’s wonderful introspection weaves personal memory with family, place with history, and a character’s realization because of experience and study at the end. I loved The Chalk Pit as much as I have every volume in this series, which manages to bring something new with each case and develop familiar, beloved characters organically, as if we’re part of their changing lives. (Without spoiling, The Chalk Pit concludes with a wedding, a celebration of life and love for the characters, and still leaves unanswered questions that makes me want to rush to the next book.) Another great addition to a favourite series, Miss Austen and I agree The Chalk Pit offers “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.