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….

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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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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 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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