Series Obsession: Elly Griffiths

1st February 2012

I pride myself on having a fairly eclectic array of book reviews on this site, but puh-lease. You guys know how much I love mysteries, and when I read a fantastic review of Elly Griffiths’ latest book at Kittling: Books, I knew this was a series I would likely love. I may love most mysteries, but I have preferences. I’d like a strong female lead, or I’d at least like there to be a female on the team or as a partner. I prefer mysteries set in the UK, and I love it when there are a couple of cases that intertwine. Peter Robinson and Ian Rankin are great at all of these things. I’ve just added Elly Griffiths to those ranks. I checked out the first book in her Ruth Galloway series at the library a few weeks ago then immediately bought the next two books for my Nook. The first one was that good.

Instead of stringing you along, I decided to review each book in the series at once. This is one series that I’d recommend reading in order, and you can click the covers of the books to buy a copy. Enjoy.

In The Crossing Places, Dr. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist, teaching at North Norfolk University and then coming home to her house on the saltmarshes, a desolate area in Norfolk where the earth meets the sky. Her life is routine, full of her cat and good Ian Rankin novels, and she’s content with it until DCI Harry Nelson requests her assistance. Lucy Downey disappeared a decade ago, but Nelson has continually received odd letters with archaeological, biblical, and mythological references, taunting him about Lucy. When he finds some bones, he calls Ruth in to identify whether the bones are animal or human, whether or not they are recent or ancient, and whether or not they are from a child.

The bones, though, are from another time, thousands of years ago, and while the discovery is significant, Ruth finds it difficult to go back to her life, analyzing bones and giving lectures. Instead, when another young girl goes missing, Ruth is more deeply invested in the case than she realizes, and she and Nelson must forge an alliance to help one another and find out what secrets the saltmarsh holds.

Though I enjoyed the mystery in The Crossing Places, a mystery for me has to be about more than who is dead/missing/assaulted, and Elly Griffiths has created an odd but entirely endearing cast of characters. Ruth is eccentric and intelligent, overweight but tired of wearing all black. Harry is married to a beautiful woman and isn’t that fond of the barren landscape to which he has moved. Then there’s Cathbad, a Druid interested in preserving the land and generally making people uncomfortable with his outlandish wardrobe. Each plays a significant role in this book, and these people, more than anything, were what drew me into this place of myth and science, history and storytelling.

In a land so ancient, Norfolk is a gem for archaeologists and a headache for contractors. When a building in the midst of being razed for a new apartment complex is discovered to be on top of an old Roman site, construction stops and digging begins. But the archaeological team finds something it didn’t expect – the bones of what look like a child beneath the door frame. DCI Harry Nelson immediately calls Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist, to determine whether these bones are from beyond recent memory or if there could possibly be a crime worth investigating.

At the same time, further research shows the site was once a Catholic children’s home, and after Nelson tracks down the priest and former head of the house, he discovers that two children went missing from the home 40 years ago. Inconsistencies and long-forgotten details muddy the case, but someone is worried. Ruth is left sinister gifts on her doorstep, much like a cat bringing prey to its master, and it doesn’t take long for the threats to intensify as Ruth and Harry dig much deeper than anyone intended.

Unlike some mysteries where the relationships remain stagnant because there is no character arc, Ruth and Harry are both changing. Their connection is inexplicable to each, but they are drawn to one another and have a quiet affection for each other. Though Harry is married and the two seem to be better friends than anything, I loved the deference, respect, and confidence Harry and Ruth show. Plus, several characters from The Crossing Places return and take greater part in the novel than in the first.

The first novel in the series certainly incorporates local mythology and history, but The Janus Stone is distinctly more focused on Roman mythology because of the discovery. The unnamed killer appears in the text between every couple of chapters, preparing sacrifices and detailing Roman rituals. The effect was beyond eerie and set up the action quite well, reinforcing the need to find out the identity of the killer, as he or she seems to be readying for a final act.

The sea holds secrets, but it also uncovers them. An archaeological team studying and mapping the erosion of the Norfolk coast makes a ghastly discovery: at least two skeletons are evident in a portion of the cliff face. Dr. Ruth Galloway is once again called away from her work to assist the police. After her work in Serbia, helping to identify bodies in mass graves, Ruth knows a thing or two about piecing together skeletons, even six of them. Ruth’s testing reveals the men were from Germany and were killed during World War II. But how did they end up here? Who killed them? DCI Nelson contacts the old Home Guard, but when two elderly men, formerly of the Guard, end up dead, Harry understands that someone is keen to make sure the truth never sees the light of day.

The House at Sea’s End is a departure from the first two novels in that there is no mythology here, only history – WWII history and Ruth’s own. Though I thought it was a bit artless, Griffith fleshes out Ruth’s experiences in Serbia by having one of Ruth’s friends Tatjana, whom she met in Serbia, stay as a house guest. Tatjana only serves to elicit Ruth’s memories, and I wish this had been done a bit differently. However, there is a lot to tackle in this novel: Ruth is no longer alone. A single, 40-year-old, working mother of a newborn doesn’t exactly have the time and freedom to traipse across the cliff and work for hours on end as she used to. But Ruth loves her work, and part of her life as a new mother is realizing and setting new boundaries for herself.

Once again, though, the strength of this novel is its characters. Though I didn’t love the plot in this one, I enjoyed seeing Ruth adapt to motherhood. All too often, I think authors have a difficult time reconciling a strong female character with her motherhood, but Griffiths doesn’t baby the reader. Ruth has her baby because she’s pregnant and knows it’s now or never. She is not naturally very maternal, but she wants to be good – both at her job and at being a mom. Watching Harry Nelson and Ruth’s friends adjust to seeing Ruth in a different light was also quite fun.

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I would deem this series, overall, as incredibly addictive and readable. If you’re at all like me and want your crime with a side of fantastic character development, I think this would be a winner for you. In fact, if you’re interested and have a Nook, let me know. I’ll use the LendMe option and shoot it your way. (Just keep in mind I don’t have the first one).

What’s the latest series that made you go a little crazy? Or are series just not for you?

  • jenn o.

    I do enjoy mysteries, but I don’t read them often. I loved Tana French’s books, but have yet to finish the second or third. I’m reading Camilla lackberg’s The Preacher now and will review it on the 7th. Her writing and character development nowhere near approaches French’s, but I do enjoy the setting and the way she weaves in the local families’ secrets.

    • I loved In the Woods. I thought it was really great. The second and third books are good but very different from one another.

      I haven’t heard of the one you’re reading. I’ll look forward to your thoughts on it.

  • Tami Erwin

    Thanks for the recommendation. I love a good mystery – and these sound like just my thing. The first one is now on my Nook “wish list”.

    • Yea! So glad I could convince you. After you read the first, if you want the other two, let me know, and I’ll lend them to you.

  • You had me at “archaeologist.” This series does sound fantastic. I am going to have a look for it!

    • I know! It’s such a different premise for a mystery series. I always wanted to be an archaeologist when I was young, so it was definitely cool to see inside that world.

  • This series sounds great! I recently read The Hunger Games trilogy and LOVED it.

    • Oh my gosh – I know. I couldn’t put that series down. I saw your posts and was almost jealous that you were reading it with fresh eyes.

      This series really is great. I’m even contemplating asking the publicist for an advance copy of the next one, which i have NEVER done. I’m that hooked.

  • Ooh, I love a good mystery series but hate it when the characters are all static, book after book. Like you, I want a strong female lead and I’m super intrigued by these three. Thanks for highlighting them — I’m adding them to my fall TBR/possibly my RIP challenge. They sound like they’d be perfect for a New England autumn!

    • You’re super patient – and organized. No way can I think that far in advance. I’m impressed! 🙂

      If you do get a chance, do read them. I’m salivating just thinking about getting a copy of the next one. Can’t. Wait.