It’s always a treat to be back in Norfolk with Dr. Ruth Galloway, in fact it feels like I’m visiting an old friend. One of those friends you maybe only see once a year, but you just pick up where you left off like you’ve never been apart. This time we’re in the very North of Norfolk, branching into Cambridgeshire and even my home city of Lincoln too. The last book was set in the middle of the pandemic and in The Last Remains we’re still dealing with the aftermath. There’s a sense of dislocation from regular life, but weirdly there’s restlessness and a lsense of urgency too. An urge to start getting things done. It’s no surprise that several characters have big changes on the horizon. Ruth’s university are thinking of scrapping the archaeology department. Nelson remains single, but is still living in the marital home he shared with wife Michelle. Cathbad is still struggling with the ongoing symptoms of long COVID, much to his partner Judy’s concern. The group of friends are once again drawn together by a body. This one is walled up in an old cafe that’s being renovated. Ruth thinks the skeleton is female and has been placed there deliberately. She’s not ancient either, with Ruth ruling that the bones are not historic and likely to have only been there twenty years. What follows is a delve into the more recent past and a group of archaeology students spellbound by the knowledge of their tutor Leo Ballard. Could this go back to an evening of students and their tutor camping in the forest and talking about Norfolk mythology? At least there is one person to ask who’s very close to home and he’s always around where strange Norfolk legends are concerned.
The case is a complex one, with the themes of twinning and disguises. There are also interesting contemporary issues, especially for anyone like me who went to university for the first time in the 1990s. If we apply today’s standards of conduct to the relationships between students and tutors in the past, it’s clear the lines are more blurred. Leo Ballard was happy to have his students at his home and have camping trips with them too. The students would also congregate at the cafe where the body is found – The Green Man. The cafe was run by a man called Peter Webster who had two daughters- Gaia and Freya – who also studied archaeology. However, the walled up skeleton is a student from Lincoln called Emily who was on the receiving end of a blow to the head. Emily was a student at Cambridge University and went missing after the camping trip to Grimes Graves, a prehistoric flint mine. It was thought she had been travelling on the train to Lincoln to visit her parents, but was seen to get off at Ely and simply vanished. I was creeped out by Leo Ballard immediately and I didn’t like his manner when talking about young girls. He seemed to take advantage of his position to lure young students into relationships with him. Freya Webster points out that he never visited the cafe himself, but he felt present because of how much his students talked about him. His following of students felt like a cult, impressed by his knowledge and taken in by his stories. In fact he wasn’t above a bit of theatre, since all students remember seeing a strange figure with horns emerging from the woods when they were camping. Was this a group hallucination or did someone in the group want to genuinely scare the students?
Cathbad, everyone’s favourite druid, is not his usual self. He is still experiencing breathing problems when exerting himself, he sleeps more than he used to and has difficulties remembering things. It seems that even he is questioning his longevity and is acting out of character, such as taking the whole family to mass at Easter. So, when he goes missing, his partner Judy is distraught. I think she fears he’s gone walkabout, a spiritual walk taken when the individual knows they’re going to die. It’s a change that Ruth is struggling to deal with, especially since Cathbad has always seemed invincible. She’s facing enough changes of her own with the department of archaeology under threat of closure and she questions what more she could have done, but she’s written books and even had a television series. She’s probably the nose high profile archaeology tutor she can think of. She doesn’t like changes that threaten her and Kate’s settled existence on the salt marshes, next door to the sister she has only recently found. Kate is now at secondary school and is used to the changes of the last year. She is not surprised at the occasional presence of Nelson in the early morning and he also arrives most Saturday evenings bearing pizza. Ruth has a lot of respect for Nelson’s wife Michelle, who had the guts to break the endless deadlock of their three sided relationship. She has moved to Blackpool with Nelson’s youngest, George. Now that Nelson is free though, she isn’t sure what it means or what she wants. She senses Nelson moving ever closer to the big discussion of their future, but finds herself avoiding it. She can’t imagine ever being anywhere but here with Kate and Flint, looking out to sea from her little cottage. However, what if Michelle returned?
There’s plenty of tension here, in the case and in the relationships. The sequence with Ruth and Kate at Grimes Graves made me feel claustrophobic! Ruth has interest from David, another department member, and his declaration of love has surprised her, despite friend Shona saying it was obvious. David is going to work at Uppsala University in Sweden and would like Ruth to go with him, where a new post is waiting for her. If she stays at UNN there’s an assistant dean’s position possible. I felt like Ruth was waiting for a big gesture from Nelson. She doesn’t want him by default, just because Michelle has gone. When Michelle returns and is at their marital home, Ruth disengages. Nelson needs to choose and he needs to do it independently. Will he do this or will it just be easier to slip back into his marriage? Does Michelle even want that? I like that Ruth loves her independence and values her life without a man very highly. He has to prove what he will add to her life, because it’s really great as it is. I was on the edge of my seat wondering what she would choose. I was also worried for Cathbad, but loved the way these friends come together as a community. Judy and Ruth support each other and their children get along really well too, so they come together to wait for Cathbad’s return, trying not to think about the alternative. I will say that there’s a wedding a the end, but I’m not telling you which characters tie the knot. It’s going to be fascinating to see Ruth, perhaps in a new location and different job going forward. However, I think there will always be part of her and Flint’s spirit wandering the marshland.
Out now from Quercus
Meet The Author
Elly is the author of two crime series, the Dr Ruth Galloway books and the Brighton Mysteries. Last year she also published a stand-alone, The Stranger Diaries, and a children’s book, A Girl Called Justice. She has also previously written books under my real name, Domenica de Rosa (I know it sounds made up). The Ruth books are set in Norfolk, somewhere Elly went for holidays in her childhood, but it was a chance remark of my husband’s that gave me her idea for the first in the series, The Crossing Places. They were crossing Titchwell Marsh in North Norfolk when her husband, who’s 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, she said, she saw Dr Ruth Galloway walking towards her out of the mist… Elly lives near Brighton with Andy. They have two grown-up children and a cat called Gus who accompanies her as she writes in the garden shed.