It was lovely to be back in the world of one of my favourite literary heroines, the archaeologist and academic Ruth Galloway. I always feel at home in this space Elly Griffiths has created, with an evocative feeling of Norfolk at its centre. She presents the wide skies, marshlands and seascapes and their flora and fauna so clearly I feel like I know it. Yet there’s always that sprinkling of the mystical, the pagan, and the long buried beliefs of a Norfolk long ago. This mix of the earthy, real and scientific as opposed to the mystery and magic is something also echoed in her characters: the craggy, straightforward, Nelson; the Druid Cathbad with his cloak, sayings and pronouncements; Ruth somewhere in-between – appreciating the science and procedure of her work, but not fully dismissing the beliefs and mysticism that surrounds the burials she visits and excavates.
The Night Hawks of the title are a local metal detecting group, who stumble upon a burial site out on the marshes towards the sea. Ruth has been here before, excavating a ‘henge site’ with her then professor, Eric – a man whose conflict between mysticism and science still hangs over this place. The group finds a hoard of Bronze Age weapons, but nearby they also find a body. Nelson thinks it might be an asylum seeker, desperately trying to cross the channel in tiny boats and fallen overboard. He rings Ruth anyway, because he knows she’ll be able to date the weapon find and know if there’s any link. The body turns out to be a local boy, Jem Taylor, who has just been released from prison and has a distinctive tattoo of a snake on his neck. Cathbad suggests this may be a nod to the local legend of the Norfolk Serpent. This could be an accidental drowning, but the second body suggests murder. There are no real clues to who might have wanted Jem dead.
The second case Nelson is called to investigate is that of a couple who seem to have died in a murder-suicide at a local farm. Black Dog Farm is linked to another local legend, that of the Black Shuck, a large black ghostly dog that is said to appear to people before they die. Nelson is sceptical of course, but since the suicide note ends with the ominous ‘he’s buried in the garden’ he asks Ruth to excavate. Ruth has already had a strange encounter with a large animal on a country lane, so her mind starts whirring when she finds large animal bones. Maybe Cathbad has more wisdom than they give him credit for. As Nelson and Judy talk to the couple’s children and Ruth thinks about the farm, it seems clear that there’s something very wrong about Black Dog Farm, something that might signal serious danger for all concerned.
I never stop talking about how much I love Ruth Galloway and here she’s back to herself after a period of time living with her partner Frank in Cambridge. Norfolk is in Ruth’s bones it seems. She and Kate seem to belong in the small cottage that looks out to the coastline, with their cat. Ruth seems to be still recovering and I love how Griffiths writes Ruth’s inner thoughts as she contemplates the choice she made: to be true to her love for someone unavailable, leaving her alone at times. As we’re all a bit battered by love and relationships as we hit our forties, I found her contemplation of loneliness within and without relationships truthful and moving. What I love most about this character is her authenticity. She doesn’t dumb down her intelligence, she doesn’t change her style and when absorbed in a really mucky dig can be decorated with mud from head to foot but doesn’t care. She is resigned to live on the fringes of Nelson’s life and knows his loyalty must be with his wife Michelle, but this case is a tricky one and may bring them close to danger once again. If one of of their lives is at risk, what will happen to those loyalties?
This was a great addition to the Galloway series and has all the ingredients I enjoy: a potentially sinister group of men, the appearance of a mystical creature, the mix of hard science, history and pagan ritual. All my favourite characters are present – I’m always intrigued with the attraction between Judy and Cathbad. There are new people too. There’s a new man in Ruth’s department at the university, a researcher whose very keen to take charge of the Bronze Age site and seems to be everywhere they turn on this case. Could he be a threat to Ruth’s settled life, her accord with Nelson, her academic prowess or something even more sinister? I found myself suspicious of him throughout. I was recently having a chat on Twitter, including Elly Griffiths, and we discussed casting for a potential TV series ( come on BBC what are you waiting for?). Ruth Jones seemed to be the choice for Ruth, David Tennant for Cathbad and either Debra Stephenson or Leanne Best as Michelle. Nobody had a good idea for Nelson. We all agreed he needed to be older, a bit craggy but somehow attractive, with a twinkle in the eye. I’m putting forward either David Morrissey or Phillip Glenister – both would have the necessary Northern bluntness I think. Till then I’ll wait patiently for the next instalment, when I expect big changes for my favourite archaeologist.
Meet The Author
I’m the author of two crime series, the Dr Ruth Galloway books and the Brighton Mysteries. Last year I also published a stand-alone, The Stranger Diaries, and a children’s book, A Girl Called Justice. I have previously written books under my real name, Domenica de Rosa (I know it sounds made up).
The Ruth books are set in Norfolk, a place I know well from childhood. It was a chance remark of my husband’s that gave me the idea for the first in the series, The Crossing Places. We were crossing Titchwell Marsh in North Norfolk when Andy (an archaeologist) mentioned that prehistoric people thought that marshland was sacred ground. Because it’s neither land nor sea, but something in-between, they saw it as a bridge to the afterlife; neither land nor sea, neither life nor death. In that moment, I saw Dr Ruth Galloway walking towards me out of the mist…
I live near Brighton with Andy. We have two grown-up children. I write in a garden shed accompanied by my cat, Gus.