Nearing the end of The Crossing Places, I felt bereft—I wanted to remain in Elly Griffiths’ setting, the marshes of Norfolk, England:
[She] sits at the table by the front window. Her favourite place. Beyond her front garden with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is nothingness. Just miles and miles of marshland, spotted with stunted gorse bushes and criss-crossed with small, treacherous streams. Sometimes, at this time of year, you see great flocks of wild geese wheeling across the sky, their feathers turning pink in the rays of the rising sun. But today, on this grey winter morning, there is not a living creature as far as the eye can see. Everything is pale and washed out, grey-green merging to grey-white as the marsh meets the sky. Far off is the sea, a line of darker grey, seagulls riding in on the waves. It is utterly desolate and Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves it so much.
And I wanted to spend more time with Griffiths’ protagonist, Dr. Ruth Galloway, university professor and head of forensic archeology: single, overweight, nearing forty, voracious and eclectic reader (with “a particular fondness for children’s books about ballet or horse-riding, neither of which she has ever tried”), nonbeliever with Born Again Christian parents (“capitals obligatory”), list-maker, specialist in old bones.
In a field cluttered with idiosyncratic heroes, it must be a challenge for mystery writers to come up with new characters. Certainly Ruth has something in common with Temperance Brennan of “Bones” fame as well as Erin Hart’s Irish archeologist Cormac Maguire. (Can’t wait for Hart’s next book, to be published in spring 2013.) But I like Ruth’s combination of confidence and uncertainty: she’s an expert in her field, but feels amateurish around her former tutor; she’s satisfied with her single life, but wonders what it would be like to be a mother.
Ruth’s specialization and past involvement in an archeological dig on the marshes make her the perfect consultant when the police discover bones in the same area. Are they old? Or do they belong to a girl who’s been missing for the last ten years? As it turns out, the bones are from the Iron Age, setting the stage for a new dig. But then, a second little girl goes missing. And so the mystery begins…replete with arcane information, clues and false leads, danger, suspense, romance, even a bit of humor.
I read somewhere recently—I think it was on Camilla Läckberg’s site—that a mystery novel’s killer has to be introduced to the reader fairly early on, not simply trotted out at the end. In The Crossing Places, Griffiths places several men into Ruth’s orbit—I knew the killer had to be one of them; then an early clue pointed me in the right direction. But that in no way diminished my appreciation for this story.
Happily, I didn’t have to wait long to reunite with Ruth, because there are already four books in the series—all available from my library system (and all currently sitting on my bookshelf). I jumped right into book two, The Janus Stone.
Griffiths widens her Norfolk settings here. Much of the action takes place in Norfolk’s capitol city of Norwich, where a building project must be halted after bones are discovered on site, and Ruth is asked to consult. There’s also a secondary setting in in a field outside Swaffham, a nearby town, where a dig for a Roman villa is underway—introducing the discussion of Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and endings who sometimes graced Roman entrances.
This story, with its varying settings, finally pushed me to do a little geographical research. Even though I’ve been reading books set in England all my life, I’m still not terribly strong on where places are on the map. I actually thought Norfolk was a lot farther north than it is. (In the strange way of coincidences in reading, my next book—Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir—opens in Norfolk at the Boleyns’ residence, Hever Castle, so my research is already paying off.)
Griffiths concludes The Janus Stone with a riveting chase and rescue scene: another element of the thriller which I’m sure is challenging to write. And she’s created a set of regular characters to complement Ruth, from the gruff but appealing DCI Nelson to the sometime-druid Cathbad. That’s another convention of the crime novel that builds reader loyalty—I’m thinking, for example, of the quirky regulars in Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury series (one of my past favorites).