I thoroughly enjoyed this novel by Elly Griffiths, which depicts a vivid and attractive character, Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist at North Norfolk University, a fictional institution near the salt marshes of the east coast of England. Ruth is 40 and lives alone in an isolated cottage on the marshes. (There are only two other cottages nearby.) She’s a keen and able academic, bringing an enthusiasm to her analysis of old bones and what they tell her about the way of live of our prehistoric ancestors that is most engaging. Ruth is content in her solitude, living with two cats after ending her relationship with Peter, another academic, a couple of years previously. Ruth’s parents, however, are a malign influence on her inner life, as she regularly reflects on their constant disapproval of her atheist, independent lifestyle, and their criticisms of her weight and dishevelled appearance.
As the novel opens, some human bones are found at the edge of the salt marsh where Ruth lives. The police have been searching for Lucy, a child who went missing 10 years ago, so they ask the archaeology department at the university to help them examine the find. Ruth performs the analysis and is able to tell the police, in the shape of DCI Harry Nelson, that the bones date from a couple of thousand years ago. Later, Harry calls Ruth and asks her to look at taunting letters he has been receiving since Lucy’s disappearance. Despite their differences in style – Harry is a gruff northerner who is married to Michelle, a “bottle blonde” who runs a hairdressing salon, and with whom he has two teenaged daughters who like shopping and parties – whereas Ruth loves reading, walking and her solitary life away from people and noise, the two instinctively recognise that they have in common a seriousness about their rather similar lines of work.
Ruth is able to provide Harry with some leads from her analysis of the letters. Then, another young girl goes missing, presumed abducted while playing with her siblings in the family garden. Harry turns to Ruth for advice at various points in his investigation, as the mismatched pair develop a mutual respect and liking. This attraction of opposites is a really great part of the book, particularly the character of Ruth, a warm and humorous woman who despite being patronised by her male colleagues pursues her own goals without being distracted.
The mystery aspects of the story are less satisfactory, depending too much on coincidence and on a small cast of characters. Although one of the subplots is cleverly deconstructed, the other one fails to convince or explain. I don’t want to reveal some of the flaws here, as this would spoil new readers’ enjoyment of this extremely promising book – not least because it ends at a very interesting point for Ruth’s future.
The next book in this series, The Janus Stone, has recently been published, and is high up on my reading list.
Review of The Crossing Places by Peter Millar in The Times.
Interview with the author, Elly Griffiths, at Shotsmag.