The Janus Stone (Ruth Galloway 2) by Elly Griffiths

Revisiting the past…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When the bones of a child are discovered under a doorway in a building about to be demolished, Ruth Galloway is called in in her capacity as a forensic archaeologist to determine how old the bones are. She suspects they’re not ancient and Nelson, as detective in charge, starts working on the hypothesis that they must have been placed under the doorway during the period the building was being used as a children’s home, run by the Catholic church, just a few decades ago. This assumption is strengthened when he learns that two young children went missing from the home – a brother and sister – and have never been heard of again. Ruth’s part in the story isn’t over once she’s finished analysing the bones however. It appears that someone is trying to frighten her, but who? And why?

This is the second book in the Ruth Galloway series, which now runs to twelve books and is still going strong. I started in the middle, as usual, read several as they came out and eventually gave up on the grounds that I felt the series had run out of steam, but before then I had acquired a couple of the earlier books, including this one. Since it’s quite a while since I last read one, I wondered if the old magic could be rekindled, and to a certain extent, it was.

The same things irritated me as had always done – the clunky use of present tense, Ruth’s obsession with her weight, the romantic tension (or lack thereof) of Ruth’s and Nelson’s never-ending non-relationship, the plot-stretching that is always required to make it seem in any way normal for an archaeologist to be so involved in a police investigation. Add in that in this one Ruth is pregnant, so we’re treated to all the usual stuff that goes with that, including much vomiting – always a favourite feature 🙄 – and I must admit I seriously considered giving up after the first few chapters.

However I decided to power on through the pain barrier and eventually found that the things I used to enjoy about the series were still enjoyable too. The plot is interesting and well done, and the element of Ruth being deliberately frightened has some nicely spine-tingling moments. There’s the usual humour amid the darkness, and the old regulars are all there – Ruth’s friends and colleagues, Nelson’s team, and, of course, Cathbad the druid. There’s also a new man on the scene who looks as though he might provide a new romantic interest for Ruth – Max Grey, a fellow archaeologist, unmarried and handsome to boot!

The plot involves elements of Roman mythology. It did rather niggle me that Ruth was apparently ignorant of this subject and unable to read even straightforward Latin inscriptions, since I find it hard to believe that anyone teaching archaeology at university level in the UK could possibly have avoided learning something about these, given that so much British archaeology is of Roman remains. But it allows Griffiths to tell the reader about the mythology via the device of Max, a Roman expert, explaining it all to Ruth.

Elly Griffiths

The setting adds a lot to this series – Ruth’s isolated cottage looking out over the salt marshes of Norfolk provides plenty of room for spooky occurrences, and Griffiths gives a real feel for the brooding beauty of the place, and for some of the myths and superstitions attached to it.

So overall I enjoyed this return visit to a past favourite, although not quite enough to make me want to read the other ones that I’ve missed.

* * * * *

(This was the winner of the 3rd People’s Choice poll and hurrah! I actually enjoyed and finished it! Well done, People – you’re clearly getting better at this… 😉 )

Book 15 of 20

(This wasn’t on my original 20 Books list but I’m falling behind, so it is now! Just….
DON’T TELL CATHY!!)

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Now You See Them (Stephens and Mephisto 5) by Elly Griffiths

Into the Swinging Sixties…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

A schoolgirl is missing. She left behind a note saying she was going off to London in pursuit of her teen idol, film star Bobby Hambro, but her father is insistent she wouldn’t have done this and must have been abducted or lured away. When Edgar Stephens, now a Superintendent, begins to investigate he finds very little, but fortunately there a few women on hand to help all the feckless males out. There’s his wife, Emma, once a police officer but now a bored and disgruntled housewife and mother. There’s Sam, the newspaper reporter, bored and disgruntled because her sexist boss seems to think she should be satisfied to make the tea for the male journalists. New WPC Meg is bored and disgruntled because she’s expected to stay behind in the station and type reports while the male police officers get all the exciting jobs. And there’s Astarte, the mystic fortune-teller, who happily is not bored and disgruntled, but did I mention she’s a mystic? Useful for moving the plot along with a bit of woo-woo whenever it gets stuck…

I know it doesn’t sound like it from that opening paragraph, but overall I quite enjoyed this although I think it’s much weaker than the earlier books in the series, most of which I’ve thought were excellent. The book starts as all the regulars come together for the funeral of Diablo who, like Edgar and Max, had been one of the Mystery Men during the war, a small Army outfit who used their skills in illusion to confuse the enemy forces. His death symbolises a break from the past. Eleven years have passed since the last book, so we’re now in Brighton in the early ‘60s, the time of mods and rockers fighting on the beach and the beginning of an era of great social change. Variety shows are no longer fashionable and Max Mephisto is now a famous film star. This means we’re no longer in the seedy world of theatres and theatrical boarding houses, and stage magic no longer plays a role in the plot. Rather a strange decision, I felt, since that was really this series’ unique selling point.

However, Griffiths handles the change quite well, quickly filling us in on what’s happened to all the recurring characters in the meantime. I didn’t think she brought the ‘60s to life as well as she had done with the ‘50s in the earlier books, but there were enough references to the changing social attitudes of the time to keep it interesting. As always, I became somewhat bored and disgruntled myself at the insistence which all crime writers currently have of ticking off all the political correctness boxes whether the plot calls for it or not, and I felt Griffiths handled this particularly clumsily. It was as if at the end she went back to a tick-list and shoe-horned in any compulsory issues she’d omitted – sexism? Tick. Feminism? Tick. Gay character? Tick. Black character? Tick. And of course all her main characters have liberal attitudes at least twenty, if not fifty, years ahead of their time.

As the plot develops, it becomes clear that more than one girl is missing, and then a body turns up. Now the race is on to find the other girls before any more of them are killed. I don’t want to tread too far into spoiler territory here, so I will simply say that I also get a little bored when recurring characters become potential victims and that happens not once, but twice in this book. It’s entirely unrealistic and is a lazy way to try to increase the tension. And the motivation of the abductor was flimsy at best.

Sometimes writing a review clarifies the thoughts a little too much and this has turned out to be more critical than I intended. While reading, I found it an enjoyable story, well written as Griffiths’ books always are, and although I felt it fell over the credibility cliff at a relatively early point, I was still intrigued enough to see how it all worked out. I did however feel that the ending was rushed and anti-climactic, and the hints that Griffiths gives at the end as to how the series is likely to progress in the future didn’t inspire me with confidence. I rather wish Griffiths would stick to standalones or perhaps trilogies or short series – somehow I always feel she runs out of steam with regards to what to do with her characters in longer-running series. I’d be happier for their personal lives to take a back seat and for the crime to be the major focus. However, I’ll probably stick around for the next one – I’m interested to see if she can make the signalled changes work.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

“Hell is empty!”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Clare Cassidy is writing a biography of the writer RM Holland, who was best known for his terrifying ghost story, The Stranger. So she’s happy to be teaching at Talgarth Academy, a school in Sussex which was once Holland’s home and where his study is still intact, giving Clare access to his papers. Clare uses The Stranger as part of her lessons, both for her school pupils and for the adults who attend her creative writing classes in school holidays. But when one of her colleagues is brutally murdered, Clare is shocked to learn that a piece of paper was found by her body containing a line from Holland’s story. And soon, as the plot thickens, it becomes clear that somehow the story holds the clue to the case…

Elly Griffiths is brilliant, and so is this! I’m tempted to leave the review at that, since the real joy of the book is going into it completely cold and watching Griffiths gradually build up some great characterisations and a truly spooky atmosphere. So, if you’re going to read it soon, my advice would be to stop reading this and avoid other reviews just in case.

* * * * *

Still here? OK, then! The book is told to us from three points of view – Clare, her daughter Georgie, and DS Harbinder Kaur, the detective in charge of the case. I found each of them a little off-putting at first for different reasons, but as Griffiths gradually developed them more fully, I grew to like them all – though not necessarily to trust them! In fact, as the saying goes, I trusted no-one – Griffiths left me happily in doubt all the way through as to everyone’s guilt, innocence, reliability as narrators, motives.

The pleasure of this one is not so much the destination as the journey. The three voices are distinct, and each is fun in her own way. Through Clare we learn a lot about the background to RM Holland’s story and the rumours that the school is haunted by the ghost of his wife. We also learn about her friendship with Ella, the victim, often through extracts from Clare’s diary. Georgie is a bright, intelligent teenager and her narrative shows her manipulating the adults around her by playing on their expectations of what a teenager should be like. Harbinder gradually becomes the star, however. Indian, gay and still living at home with her parents in her thirties, her sections are increasingly full of humour as the reader realises that her abrasiveness and sarcasm are really a kind of defence mechanism.

I loved the way Griffiths gradually fed us the story of The Stranger, which in itself is a pretty good pastiche of a real Victorian ghost story. But the spookiness doesn’t stop with it – the main story has some seriously goose-pimply moments, and at least two where I gasped out loud! Lovely Gothic stuff, with the old house and all the diary-writing and mysterious messages and other things I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Even the investigation has a rather old-fashioned feel to it, with the emphasis on suspects, motives and clues rather than on forensics.

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

A great read, especially for this time of year. Griffiths is undoubtedly one of the most talented (and prolific) writers out there at the moment, and she shows here that she can step beyond the usual police procedural. I’ve seen a few reviewers say they hope Harbinder will get a series of her own. Much though I enjoyed her character, I vote no! I’m hoping Griffiths will continue to break free from the predictability of series and give us more standalones, complete in themselves, instead. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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The Vanishing Box (Stephens and Mephisto 4) by Elly Griffiths

Staging a murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold and snowy December in the Brighton of 1953, and magician Max Mephisto has top billing in the variety show at the Hippodrome, along with his new stage partner, his daughter Ruby. Ruby’s fiancé, DI Edgar Stephens, has to put his plans to see the show on hold when a girl is found murdered in one of the many boarding houses in this seaside resort. Nineteen-year-old Lily Burtenshaw has been found strangled, with her body carefully posed to resemble a famous event from history. This makes Edgar think of one of the other acts at the Hippodrome – a troupe of showgirls called Living Tableaux, who appear almost naked on stage in recreations of historical or artistic scenes, their blushes covered by a few strategically placed feathers and some unobtrusive flesh-coloured pants. Artistic, young DS Bob Willis thinks – or sleazy, in the opinion of his colleague DS Emma Holmes. The first task the detectives face, then, is to see if they can find a connection between Lily and the troupe…

After the last book in the series took us off to London and America, I was pleased that this one returned to the theatre world of Brighton. Griffiths evokes both time and place convincingly, especially the itinerant life of the performers and the boarding houses they make their temporary homes. She’s very good at showing how the paths of the show people cross and re-cross as they travel round the theatres of Britain, so that relationships are always being renewed or broken as bookings dictate. She shows the contrast between the seediness of backstage life and the glamour of performance, and how some love the travelling life while others see it as a short-term thing until they find something more settled.

In both her series, Griffiths tends to concentrate on the romantic lives of her lead characters more than is usual in police procedurals. This is something that a lot of readers particularly like about her books. Personally I don’t mind a bit of romance, but I find it’s often given too much prominence for my taste in Griffiths’ books, although I prefer the way she’s handling it in this series. But in this book, it all becomes a little too much, with every main character being in love or lust with someone, relationships starting and ending and lots of low-level romantic angst. It might actually be quite a realistic portrayal since most of the leads are youngish and single, but it gives the book a cosy-ish feel which somehow takes away from the story of the crime.

Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

However, the plotting is strong and the story flows well so that it held my interest all the way through. It’s more of a traditional length for a crime novel, thus avoiding the dreaded sagging middle – hurrah! And all three detectives are well-drawn and likeable – I enjoyed seeing Bob getting a bigger role in this one, and I was relieved that Emma didn’t spend too much of her time battling sexism (a theme with which I’m bored rigid). I did feel that Griffiths had to stretch a bit to make Max relevant to the plotting – if the series continues, it’s going to get progressively harder to work him in believably each time. Much though I like him, I’m kinda hoping that the development of Emma and Bob as stronger characters might allow Max to fade out a bit, leaving this as a more traditional police-based series, focused on Edgar and his team.

So overall, another strong entry in this enjoyable series – well researched, well plotted, well written. My criticism of the romantic angle is, I know, entirely subjective – Griffiths does it very well, and while it’s a weakness for me, I’m sure it will be strength for people who enjoy that aspect more. And otherwise, I like these characters very much and love the post-war Brighton setting. I hope there’s more to come…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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The Blood Card (Stephens and Mephisto 3) by Elly Griffiths

Long live the Queen!

😀 😀 😀 😀

the-blood-cardIt’s 1953, and Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is investigating the death of a fortune-teller who drowned off the Brighton pier. It looks like an accident, but the possibilities of suicide and murder have to be ruled out. However, Edgar’s investigation is interrupted when he is called to London by General Petre to look into the mysterious death of Colonel Cartwright, who used to be one of Edgar’s superior officers during the war. General Petre has called on Max Mephisto to help too, since Max also worked with Colonel Cartwright, and there are aspects of the murder that suggest it may have something to do with the Magic Men – the outfit Max and Edgar were involved in, which used illusion to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies had greater defences than they actually did. It soon transpires that Colonel Cartwright was afraid that a plan was afoot to disrupt the coronation of the new young Queen, Elizabeth II, so Edgar and Max are under pressure to solve the case before that event takes place in a couple of weeks time.

I’ve enjoyed the previous books in this new series of Elly Griffiths’ a great deal, so had high hopes for this one. The Brighton setting just after the end of WW2 is brilliantly evoked, especially the rather seedy tone of the theatres and musical halls, and the performers who live a nomadic life around the various seaside towns of England, with, if they’re lucky, an occasional booking amidst the bright lights of London’s West End. Max is currently performing at the Theatre Royal in London, and has been tempted somewhat against his better judgement to appear on the new-fangled television – a medium he fears will lead to the final death of the already fading variety theatre. The TV show is scheduled to be shown on the evening of the Queen’s coronation.

Edgar meantime is still trying to pin Ruby down to setting a date for their wedding, but Ruby is not ready to give up her aspirations to become as great a stage magician as her father, Max. And Edgar’s colleague, Emma, is still harbouring feelings of unrequited love for him. Which is all a little annoying, since this book is set two years after the last one, and yet none of these characters seem to have moved on emotionally from how they were left then. Shades of the tedious Ruth/Nelson saga from Griffiths’ other series beginning to creep in, I fear. I wish Griffiths could either leave the romance out of her books, or else move it along – she seems to stick her characters into a situation and then leave them there forever. Hopefully she’ll resolve this triangle in the next book, or I’m afraid it will become as dull as poor old Ruth’s never-ending non-love story.

The plot of this one takes Edgar to America, which provides quite a bit of humour as Edgar tries to understand a society that feels very foreign to him. The picture Griffiths paints of America at that time feels very much based on movies of the period – it doesn’t give quite the same aura of authenticity as the Brighton scenes. But it adds an extra element of interest by expanding out from the rather restricted setting of an English seaside town.

Elly Griffiths Photo: Jerry Bauer
Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

For me, the plot of this one is too convoluted and loses credibility before it reaches the end. While it’s very well written and has a great dramatic ending, my disbelief was stretched well past breaking point before it got there. However, the recurring characters remain as enjoyable as ever, and as usual there are plenty of quirky new ones introduced to keep the interest level up. I also enjoyed the glimpse of the early days of television, when it was all still experimental and, of course, broadcast live, giving it plenty of potential for unexpected drama.

Overall, this isn’t my favourite of the series, but it’s still a good outing for Edgar, Max and the other recurring characters, and I look forward to seeing where they go next – with my fingers firmly crossed that they don’t remain stuck in their emotional ruts for too much longer.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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The Woman in Blue (Ruth Galloway 8) by Elly Griffiths

the woman in blueTime to say goodbye…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Cat-sitting for a friend in Walsingham, one night Cathbad sees a woman in a blue robe standing in the graveyard behind the house. Being a druid with mystical tendencies, Cathbad thinks he’s had some kind of vision – until the next day the body of a young woman in night clothes and a blue dressing gown is found in a ditch. Harry Nelson and his team quickly discover she was a patient at a nearby rehab clinic and so their investigation is focused there. But then another murder takes place, this time of a woman priest attending a conference in the town. The two crimes have enough in common for Nelson to suspect that they are linked…

The Ghost Fields, Ruth Galloway’s last outing, left me disappointed and thinking that it was time for Griffiths to draw this series to a close. However, since the series has always been variable, some excellent, some pretty poor, I decided to stick around for one more book, to see whether Griffiths could find her old form. And there’s no doubt that the plot of this one is a considerable step-up from the last one. There is, at least, a mystery in this and some actual detective work.

However, all the usual problems remain. Firstly, it’s still written in third person present tense, and somehow it feels clunkier with every book. The ancient off-off non-love non-affair between Ruth and Nelson rumbles on, going nowhere as always. I spent a lot of time wondering what on earth either Ruth or Nelson’s wife could see in this rather neanderthal, bad-tempered, somewhat obnoxious man – nope, it’s a mystery! (In fact, Ruth herself is constantly objecting to his macho, hectoring style – what exactly is it about him that she’s supposed to love?) I know some people like this aspect of the books, but I’ve been hoping that Ruth would move on for about five books now – she seems increasingly pathetic as time goes on, constantly hankering after someone else’s husband.

The major problem is that there is a limit to how many police investigations credibly require help from an archaeologist. In this one, Griffiths makes no real attempt to bring Ruth in officially. Instead, one of the women priests attending the conference just happens to be an old friend of Ruth’s so, when she starts receiving threatening letters, of course she takes them to Ruth. Well, if you were being threatened, of course you’d go to an archaeologist you knew vaguely from University decades ago rather than to the police, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t? No, neither would I.

With Walsingham having a long history as a site of pilgrimage, there is a lot about religion in the book, Christianity in general and more specifically Anglo-Catholicism. Griffiths writes about religion as if it’s an odd thing to see priests or nuns on British streets – we may not be the most ultra-religious country in the world, but she makes it sound about as unlikely as seeing witchdoctors or aliens. Ruth is a hardened atheist, but from a very religious family, while Nelson was brought up by a strict Catholic mother, and yet neither of them seems to know basic things about Christian practices or history.

Elly Griffiths Photo: Jerry Bauer
Elly Griffiths
Photo: Jerry Bauer

The plot is actually quite intriguing for most of the book, and when it concentrates on the murders and investigation it’s an enjoyable read. However, Griffiths then throws it all away at the end by making the whole dénouement dependant on a couple of the characters having sudden flashes of inspiration at just the right moment, based on absolutely nothing. And when all is explained, the whole thing is not just highly unlikely but pretty silly.

So, people who enjoy the ongoing Ruth-Nelson saga will probably enjoy this, but for me this series is well past its sell-by date, I’m afraid. I can only hope that Griffiths decides to concentrate on her new, excellent, Stephens and Mephisto series instead, send Nelson back to his poor wife (though does she deserve that?) and let Ruth retreat to academia where she belongs.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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Smoke and Mirrors (Stephens and Mephisto 2) by Elly Griffiths

He’s behind you…!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

smoke and mirrorsIn the midst of heavy snowfall in the winter of 1951 in Brighton, two young children are missing. Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens and his team are desperately searching but as time passes and temperatures plummet below zero, hope is beginning to fade. And Edgar’s worst fears are realised when the children are found dead on Devil’s Dyke, with sweets strewn in the snow around them. Annie and Mark had been best friends for years, with Annie as the leader and Mark a willing follower. The children had been involved in writing their own plays – chilling little twisted versions of fairytales, and the scene of the murder looks almost like something out of a fairytale too. Meantime Edgar’s friend, magician Max Mephisto, is starring in the Christmas pantomime at the Palace Pier Theatre as Uncle Abanazar in another fairytale, Aladdin. Throw in a previous murder in 1912 during rehearsals for Babes in the Wood, and Edgar has to wonder if all these things can really be coincidence…

Loved this one! Yes, even despite the dead children motif. The big difference is that it’s told in a more traditional way – in third person from the perspective of Edgar or occasionally one of his team, instead of in first person from inside the head of a grief-stricken parent. This removes the reader to a safer distance where s/he can sympathise rather than wallow or be drowned, and where the mystery takes priority over the misery. It’s also told in the past tense so has none of the clumsiness that sometimes afflicts Griffiths’ writing in her Ruth Galloway series. In fact, she writes so well in past tense I wish she’d change to it for the Ruth books too.

Elly Griffiths
Elly Griffiths

If you call your book Smoke and Mirrors, your readers can expect a bit of misdirection and Griffiths provides it in spades. The clues are there but they are so cunningly concealed beneath an entire shoal of red herrings that this reader didn’t get even close to the solution, despite having suspected pretty much everyone who appeared at one point or another. But I didn’t feel the answer came out of nowhere – at the end, Griffiths shows us Edgar’s thought processes as he finally works it all out and it all feels plausible and credible (unlike some of the theories yours truly had come up with along the way) and, looking back, it’s fair-play. And the red herrings are all neatly cleaned up too – no leaving a mess of untidy loose ends hanging around. (Oops! The idea of herrings with loose ends is a little yucky – so sorry!)

The Brighton setting and sense of period in this series is pretty much perfect. Griffiths even gives an authentic feel for the way people talked back then, particularly in books, without it ever sounding pastiched. (Practically zero swearing and not a single f-word – amazing! And yet the world is still turning…) The only thing that is a tiny bit anachronistic is Edgar’s attitude to things like women and gay men – he seems a bit too politically correct for the era. But that does make him more likeable, and we get to see more realistic attitudes from some of the other characters so that the overall picture of this time-period still feels genuine. There’s a female sergeant on Edgar’s team now, Emma Holmes, and she’s a good addition – also likeable, and shown as competent and intelligent without becoming some kind of feminist superwoman.

Stanley Baxter - best ever pantomime dame!
Stanley Baxter – best ever pantomime dame!

I love all the stuff about Max and the theatre and in this one all the panto scenes were done brilliantly, with a good deal of warmth and humour coming into the book through both the on- and off-stage antics of the cast. Who could possibly not love a book where one of the characters is called The Great Diablo? Or where poor Edgar has to interview someone who is halfway through the process of transforming from middle-aged man to glamorous Pantomime Dame complete with eyelashes and camp jokes? I love traditional panto with all the cross-gender stuff and mildly risqué humour that works at different levels for children and adults, and I thought Griffiths captured it all perfectly. In fact, I’m kinda hoping she takes up writing pantomime scripts as a sideline! I really want to know more about Handy Andy from Tonypandy…

Great stuff, that shows that the more traditional style of detective fiction can still provide strong stories, good characters, and baffling mysteries while being truly entertaining. A must-read series for me already after only two books, so I’m delighted that the way the recurring characters are left at the end leaves plenty of room for more to come…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths

Middle-aged hanky-panky…

🙂 🙂 😐

the ghost fieldsWhen developers start to dig up a field prior to building houses on it, the work is brought to a sudden halt by the discovery of a buried WW2 plane, complete with partially mummified corpse. Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called in, and spots something the police have unaccountably missed – a bullet hole in the corpse’s forehead. Immediately knowing (psychically) that this wound was not caused during an airfight, she leaps to the conclusion that the man was the victim of murder.

When Elly Griffiths is on form, she’s one of my favourite writers, so it saddens me to say that she is most definitely not on form in this book. The fundamental problem with amateur detectives in contemporary novels is that it becomes increasingly difficult for authors to find ways to link them to crimes. Griffiths has got round that in this one by really pretty much ignoring the crime and detection element, and writing a rather tired middle-aged love triangle instead – actually a love star, to be more accurate, since there are a total of five middle-aged people all either getting up to hanky-panky or wishing they could, usually with people other than their partners. Fascinating if anyone still cares whether Ruth and Nelson will ever get together, but I lost interest in that strand about four books ago. Ruth really has to stop hankering over someone else’s husband and move on, and in the last book I thought she might actually be about to do so. Sadly not.

The plot is both thin and full of holes, and drags on for ever with Nelson doing absolutely nothing towards actually solving the mystery. It shouldn’t really be too hard either. Given that the victim was murdered during the war, then the killer must be either dead or in his late ’80s at the youngest – narrows the field of suspects somewhat, don’t you think? So since we know from the start by a quick arithmetical calculation that we can exclude almost every character from suspicion, there’s not much tension. Except perhaps the tension of wondering how long it will be before Nelson and Ruth suss out what’s staring the rest of us in the face. But their inability to work it out means that there’s time for another murder to be done, finally expanding the field of suspects and throwing open the possibility that Nelson could start interviews or look for clues or stake people out or… well, something! But no, he sends off for DNA tests and we all wait and wait for them to come back, while the characters fill in the time with some fairly passionless flirting.

Oh dear! I could mention that the reason the body is in the field is silly and contrived, or that to go along with the no detection there is also no archaeology to speak of. I could sigh over the fact that the book is written in the usual tedious present tense (third person) which really is not suited to a book that takes place over a period of months, and which feels even clumsier in this book than usual. Or I could mention that Ruth’s low self-esteem and constant self-criticism become increasingly tedious as the series wears on – another thing I thought she was beginning to get over in the last outing. Oh! It appears I just did mention them!

Elly Griffiths
Elly Griffiths

On the upside, Griffiths, as always, creates a good sense of place in this bleak Norfolk landscape, and her characterisation of Ruth is excellent, even if I find the character progressively more irritating. And while the bulk of the book is a drag with nothing much happening except love/lust affairs, the thrillerish ending is well written and enjoyable. But I’m afraid overall I think this is one for die-hard fans only – it’s getting hosts of 5-stars, so it must be working for some people. But I think this fan has stopped being die-hard – the standard in the series seems to oscillate wildly from brilliant to pretty poor, and in my opinion it’s time to draw it to a close and for Griffiths to move on to something different. Her last book, The Zig Zag Girl, not a Ruth Galloway one, was far superior to this in every way.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

the zig-zag girlAbracadabra…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When the legs and head of a beautiful young woman are found in two boxes in the Left Luggage office at Brighton station, something about the body makes Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens think of an old magic trick, the Zig Zag Girl. But when the missing torso turns up in a box addressed to him under his old army title of Captain, he begins to realise that whatever the motive is, it’s personal. So he turns for advice to top stage magician, Max Mephisto, who served with him during the war in a top-secret unit dubbed the Magic Men. Together they begin to investigate a crime that seems to be leading them back towards those days and to the small group of people who made up the unit.

As a fan of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, I’ve always had two small reservations. The first is that they’re written in my pet-hate, first person, present tense, and the second is that because Ruth is not with the police, her links to the various crimes are often tenuous and a bit unbelievable. So it was a delight to me to see that this one stars a policeman and is written in the third person past. Griffiths tells us in the afterword that her grandfather was a music hall comedian and that her mother grew up in the world of theatrical digs and itinerant performers. The book is also based in Griffiths’ home town of Brighton. These things all come together to give the book a real feeling of authenticity, especially to the life of Max Mephisto, the co-hero, a top billing magician who is nevertheless aware that the old variety shows are beginning to lose their appeal.

The Zig Zag Girl trick  – I still can’t see how it’s done!

Set in the early 1950s, the investigation is written more like the stories of that time than today’s police procedurals. This is a slower and less rule-bound world where it doesn’t seem odd for the detective to team up with an amateur, and Edgar and Max make a great team. As they travel around England interviewing their old colleagues, we find out more about their war-time past and the tragedy that affected the whole unit. Griffiths takes her time to reveal the story and paces it just right to keep the reader’s interest while maintaining the suspense. Being based around the world of variety shows, there’s a whole cast of quirky characters, from the rather nasty mind-reader and comic Tony Mulholland, to the glamorous female assistant Ruby, who wants to become a magician in her own right. We also meet some of the old army men – shouldn’t every mystery story contain at least one retired Major? And the two leads, Edgar and Max, are very well-drawn and likeable.

Elly Griffiths
Elly Griffiths

The rather seedy world of the performers is portrayed very credibly – lives spent touring round the various seaside resorts, living in dingy bed and breakfasts run by theatrical landladies, and performing night after night in the grand old theatres at the ends of piers. Griffiths shows us Brighton as it’s on the cusp of changing from its old-fashioned respectability to becoming the more violent and dangerous place it became in the late ’50s and ’60s. Both place and time are done very well, with the shadow of the war still hanging over the characters and the world they inhabit. With an intriguing, complex plot, an interesting slant on a unique (and not entirely fictional) aspect of the war, some very enjoyable humour and a touch of romance, this is a great mystery of the traditional kind – and, for me at least, a real step up from Elly Griffiths’ already high standards. Is this the start of a new series? I hope so…

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The Outcast Dead (Ruth Galloway 6) by Elly Griffiths

Back on top form…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the outcast deadWhen archaeologist Ruth Galloway discovers what she believes to be the body of a long-dead murderess, her find becomes the subject of a TV documentary on Women Who Kill. Meantime in the present day, a young child has died and DCI Harry Nelson suspects he may have been murdered by his mother. Still haunted by the memory of the death of Scarlet Henderson (The Crossing Places), Nelson is struggling to deal with this case, especially since there is very little evidence to prove how little David died. And when another child is abducted, the tension really starts to mount…

After the slight disappointment I felt with Elly Griffiths’ last outing, A Dying Fall, I thought the Ruth Galloway series might have run its course. But I’m delighted to say that this one is right back up to the standard of the earlier books in the series – a thoroughly enjoyable and well written novel with very strong characterisation throughout. Ruth has always been a great character but had got a bit bogged down in mild misery and angst, especially about her weight. Here, though, her senses of both humour and proportion seem to have re-asserted themselves and she’s enjoying life. Her previous boyfriend Max has disappeared from the scene, with no tears of regret from this reader; and a new romance might be on the cards with Frank, an American historian presenting the documentary – who apparently looks more like George Clooney than any other man in Norfolk! Kate is now a talking toddler, and Griffiths writes very realistically about the pressures of being a working single mother without laying it on too thick.

You didn't think I'd miss an opportunity like that, did you?
You surely didn’t think I’d miss an opportunity like that?

I still have a couple of grumbles about the series. Firstly, there’s the occasional slightly mystical element introduced which doesn’t work for me, but that’s a matter of personal preference rather than a criticism, and I was glad to see that Cathbad the druid still gets involved, even though he’s now living in Lancashire. My second grumble is more serious, and that’s that Griffiths continues to use the clunky and stilted present tense. To some degree, I forgive her – she was one of the first to start this annoying trend so at least she can’t really be accused of jumping on the bandwagon; but oh, how I wish she and all the other authors who overuse this artificial technique would jump off it now. It’s been done – it’s not original any more.

Elly Griffiths
Elly Griffiths

The plot works well, though Griffiths has of course trodden the ground of missing and dead children before. Through the archaeological strand, we find out about Mother Hook, a (fictional) Victorian baby-farmer – hanged for the murder of a child in her care. Frank, though, thinks she has been the subject of an injustice and is looking for Ruth to help find archaeological evidence that will back up his belief. Ruth’s involvement in the present-day investigation relies too much on coincidence, but that’s always going to be a problem when the main protagonist is not a member of the police, and on the whole Griffiths has made it work much more convincingly this time around. The solution, though, comes out of nowhere – this could not be called a fairplay novel – but it still works and provides a satisfying ending.

Mini-grumbles aside, this is a hugely enjoyable read and it’s great to see both Griffiths and Ruth back on top form, putting this series firmly back onto my list of must-reads. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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A Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths

Dying FallDem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones… 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

When archaeologist Dan Golding finds the burial site of the Raven King, he writes to his old university friend Ruth Galloway to ask for her expert help in examining the bones. But by the time Ruth receives the letter, Dan is dead…

In this outing, Griffiths takes Ruth north to Lancashire, accompanied by her child Kate and her druid friend Cathbad. Nelson follows, partly to visit his old home and the family and friends that still live there, partly to find out what’s happening in the police investigation of Dan’s death. The descriptions of Lancashire are very good, highlighting the differences between the glitzy vulgarity of Blackpool, the net-curtained respectability of the small towns around, and the wild and desolate feel of the countryside and woods. Ruth remains a likeable character on the whole, although her constant obsession with her weight is becoming ever more tiresome. We get it – she’s fat and she’d rather be slim. Cathbad and Nelson are becoming more rounded and more likeable as the series progresses and Griffiths’ portrayal of each of their relationships to little Kate feel very realistic.

However, I found that there were a few problems with the book. Firstly, I got very tired of Northerners being portrayed as somehow culturally Neanderthal, dragging behind their sophisticated counterparts down south in questions of sexism, racism, and political correctness generally – a very clichéd approach, I felt. I found the present-tense narrative felt false and contrived and the book seemed to take an age to really get going. But more than that, there were some ridiculous things relating to the police investigation that lent an air of unreality to the whole thing: it took the police weeks to start a murder investigation – it seemed as if they were content to do nothing while they waited for Ruth and Nelson to arrive; no-one except the police seemed to know Dan had been murdered till Ruth told them; the police didn’t think to call Dan’s phone – it was left to Ruth to come up with that hardly revolutionary idea; and finally and most unrealistically, the police gave Ruth a copy of Dan’s diary to read to see if she could spot any clues – presumably Northerners can’t read?

Having said that, the plot is interesting (if a little far-fetched), the characterisation is good and the last third or so of the book is exciting and full of tension. Overall, I enjoyed it but I feel the author has to tighten up on the loose plot contrivances if she wants to take her place in the front-rank of current crime/thriller writers. Somewhere between 3 and 4 stars for me, so rounding up because despite my criticisms I will still be looking out for the next in the series.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

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