Ruth Galloway is one of my all-time favourite characters in fiction, because I love her perspective on life, her intelligence and the fact that she doesn’t give in to all those things women are pressured to worry about. So, as I read her latest exploits, imagine my shock when she is lured to a Lean Zone meeting! I was horrified. I can’t cope with a Ruth who avoids cake. Rest assured, our favourite forensic archaeologist isn’t about to become a calorie counter. I gave a huge sigh of relief. When chatting about her decision not to continue at Lean Zone, Ruth tells her neighbour she was only inspired to go because she’d seen a school friend who lost an enormous amount of weight. The neighbour asks ‘and you thought she looked better?’ Ruth considers for a moment and replies ‘no I thought she looked worse.’ This is just one of the reasons I love Ruth and have followed her through 14 novels. How long will it take for someone to turn this into a TV series? There’s so much material to work with and she’s such a relatable character. I’ve entered into debate on Twitter over who should play these characters I love, even with Elly Griffiths herself. I know Ruth Jones was discussed, but I favour Olivia Colman who’s actually from Norfolk. David Tennant was put forward as Cathbad and I’m sure he’d pull it off admirably, although for some reason Rhys Ifans floats into my mind. As for Ruth’s love interest, the slightly ravaged and wonderfully Northern, DI Harry Nelson I’m thinking of either David Morrissey or Phillip Glenister (a little bit worn, but still a certain something that’s attractive).
There are several mysteries in this latest book in Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series, both professional and personal. Ruth is called in to excavate human remains discovered by a roadworks crew, in the evocatively named Tombland area of Norwich. This alerts her to Augustine Seward’s House, close to the cathedral and rumoured home of the Grey Lady – a young girl locked into the house during the plague with her sick parents in order to stop them spreading the virus. Plague sufferers were often barricaded into their homes, but rumours suggest that this young girl was alive long after her parents death and had tried to eat them when she was starving. Another grim discovery is the death of an older woman, found by her cleaner after taking an overdose in her bedroom. A prior case had already caught DI Nelson’s eye because he couldn’t understand why someone suicidal, would put their ready meal in the microwave first. This latest death adds to Nelson’s suspicions, because the cleaner is convinced she had to unlock the room, from the outside. There is also a personal mystery for Ruth, who is clearing out her mother’s things. Her widowed dad has remarried and after several years leaving things as they were, his new wife would like to redecorate their home. It falls to Ruth to sort her clothes and belongings. She finds a box of photographs and is shocked to find a picture of her own cottage – a place her mother never really warmed to. Written on the back is Dawn, 1963, a full four years before Ruth was born. Why would her mother have kept this and why did she never share that she’d been there?
The pandemic is woven so well into the story and Griffiths really captures the disbelief, mental struggles and frustrations of trying to live in this strange time. It was interesting to see characters who are so familiar to us, reacting to something we’ve all lived through. Nelson is sceptical at first, but a few weeks later as wife Michelle ends up locked down with her parents in Blackpool, will he cope with living alone? Ruth takes lockdown in her stride, trying to juggle home schooling, lectures via Zoom and supporting her students. Griffiths weaves in the story of those students who haven’t been able to go home and are isolated in halls of residence, including one young man who is very interested in Dr. Galloway. Judy is as practical as ever, but surely this is the sort of crisis her partner Cathbad is ready for? Druid, wizard and all round mystical being, Cathbad is teaching yoga in the morning and has a pantry ready for any crisis. I felt quite tense though, waiting to see how COVID would affect these characters I love and worrying for them. Nelson’s team are struggling to investigate their case with the restrictions in lockdown, but the case is still fascinating with a lot of red herrings to muddy the waters. I loved how this mystery really looks at mental health and how difficult life events can leave us vulnerable to those who would prey on us. All the possible victims are women, live alone and have faced difficulties in life such as the loss of a partner. It also seems that all have been to weight loss groups, but is that a clue or a sad indication of the modern pressures of being a woman?
The personal mystery of Ruth’s had me hooked even more than the crime this time around. Ruth’s mother had never understood why she wanted to live her life in such an isolated place and there are times during lockdown where Ruth has wondered this herself, especially for Kate who is now 11 and has been totally reliant on the Internet to talk to friends. Ruth’s dad is equally befuddled by the photo she’s found which predates even his relationship with his wife. Ruth keeps wondering why, when she found her cottage, her mother never mentioned seeing it before. Plus, if it wasn’t important, why keep the photo for all these years? Answers come, but they’re unexpected and even life changing. It’s the personal relationships that shine here and the unexpected places and people that bring us comfort. For Judy, used to the ethereal and spiritual Cathbad, it’s her straight talking old sidekick Cloughie who brings the solace she needs from a friend. Ruth is surprised to find she has spent most of her time feeling almost separate from the world. She feels the strangeness of her daily life changes: more time in bed, the different way of working, and the jarring first sight of shoppers queueing outside the supermarket in their masks. Most of her observations are practical changes though and she’s remarkably comfortable, just her, Kate and Flint the cat. In fact the upside has been the lack of other people, the beautiful scenery and wildlife on their doorstep. They even have a new neighbour, who Ruth enjoys getting to know with a socially distanced glass of wine each evening separated by the garden fence. They can walk together on the beach and do Cathbad’s daily yoga, making them feel a connection rather than isolation. Nelson however is completely alone with only his dog Bruno for company. Used to a house run by Michelle and the rough and tumble of young son George he’s strangely lost and finds himself drawn mentally to the cottage on the coast and his other family.
There are little observations that make Griffith’s world feel so real to me. Lured to a small school reunion while staying at her parent’s house in London, Ruth observed how everyone had aged. In fact her school boyfriend Daniel is bald and she observes she wouldn’t have recognised him a line-up. She then does the middle aged calculation that all of us over 45 do in these circumstances; she wonders if she’s looking as old as they are. Then as the pandemic hits, these people she’s not seen for decades, are sending her messages on social media prompted by the ‘strange times’ we’re living through. It’s something I observed over over the last two years, when daily life is put on pause we look for things to ground us or start to re-evaluate our lives. These touches are grounded in that incredible Norfolk setting, fully formed in my brain now I can immediately see inside Ruth’s cottage by the salt marsh. This mysterious and wild space is offset by the city of Norwich and in this case, the setting of Tombland around the cathedral. This spiritual and ghostly space felt unsettling, as friend Janet explains to Ruth about sitings of the Grey Lady who wanders the house with a lit candle, but also walks through the walls where there used to be doors. It’s no surprise that Cathbad has once seen her in this area and the ghost story adds to the confusion of those final chapters as the case builds to a climax. I really loved the theme of the outcast dead, whether they are the undiscovered plague pits that one of Ruth’s students becomes fascinated with or the graves of those who committed suicide. Historically, people who’ve committed suicide are placed outside the boundaries of the graveyard in unconsecrated ground. The idea of punishing someone in so much pain seems archaic now and I loved the idea of a yearly church service to acknowledge all these outcast people. There are interesting elements of coercive control in the investigation and our team have to ask questions about their preconceptions of who commits crime and what criminals look like, never mind how and if they can prosecute. However, my mind was also occupied with worrying over which of my beloved characters might catch COVID and how their loved ones might cope. I’d set aside two days to read this novel on publication and I only needed one, because I had to know all my characters were safe and when I reached it, I was immediately hooked into waiting for my next instalment.
Meet The Author
ELLY GRIFFITHS is the author of the Ruth Galloway and Brighton mystery series, as well as the standalone novel The Stranger Diaries, winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel, and The Postscript Murders. She is the recipient of the CWA Dagger in the Library Award and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. She has published a children’s book, A Girl Called Justice. She has previously written books under her real name, Domenica de Rosa.
The Ruth books are set in Norfolk, a place she knows well from childhood. It was a chance remark of her husband’s that gave her the idea for the first in the series, The Crossing Places. They were crossing Titchwell Marsh in North Norfolk when he 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, she saw Dr Ruth Galloway walking towards her out of the mist…
She lives near Brighton with her husband Andy, an archaeologist. She has two grown-up children. She writes in the garden shed accompanied by her cat, Gus.