Ruth Galloway is as attractive as ever in her welcome third appearance. She is a forensic archaeologist at the University of North Norfolk, part of her duties being to liaise with the police when they require archaeological expertise. Ruth has been called out on two previous occasions to help identify the age and provenance of old, dead bodies, but in this third novel, she herself is in a party that finds a makeshift grave containing a number of bones, on a remote beach. At first glance, these bones seem to be fairly old; Ruth’s subsequent isotope analysis indicates that they have been there for about 70 years. Further evidence indicates that the bones may be those of Germans, so the police part of the investigation heads off into the Second World War and, specifically, the remaining surviving members of the local home guard, whose headquarters were in the titular house on the rapidly crumbling coastline above the beach in question.
Harry Nelson is the detective inspector in charge of the investigation; he and Ruth are old hands at working together, dovetailing well their academic and practical expertise. Harry is a northerner, married to Michelle, a fashionable hairdresser. They have two teenage daughters, so Harry lives in an atmosphere of visits to health clubs, incomprehensible course work in subjects alien to him such as “environmental science”, and unwelcome holidays in the Canary Islands. Ruth lives on her own in a remote cottage on the salt marshes – in this novel she does not have time to read any crime fiction, as she has other more pressing interests on her hands. In addition, she is contacted by an old friend and fellow-academic, Tatjana, whom Ruth met some years ago while volunteering to disinter mass graves and help identify the victims in the former Yugoslavia after the atrocities there. Tatjana has a tragic history, but has subsequently moved to the United States and now wants to stay with Ruth while she teaches for a few weeks at a nearby university. Tatjana’s role in the novel is a bit sketchy: she mainly serves to allow passages where Ruth remembers her times as a volunteer in Bosnia, and at one crucial plot point she refuses to undertake a small service for Ruth in a judgemental manner that seems out of keeping with someone who has been a house guest for two weeks.
Overwhelmingly, the charm of this novel, as with its predecessors, is the character of Ruth and her relationship with Harry, in a personal sense her polar opposite but in a professional sense her perfect match. Some of the recurring secondary characters are nicely coming into focus, in particular Cathbad, part-time lab technician and full-time Druid; and detective constable Judy Johnson, who shows signs of having almost Ruth-level emotional dilemmas to come. I have to say that the two crimes in this novel, the old and the new, were not that convincing to me or even that interesting compared with the fascinating interpersonal dynamics between Ruth, Harry and their intersecting circles of colleagues and acquaintances of varying attitudes and values. There is one very good piece of misdirection on a snowy night which elevates the mystery plot into real suspense, but apart from that, the modern crime, in particular its denouement, is weak. As for the older crime, I cannot tell how convincing it is as I was not alive at the time, but I did not feel it matched with what I have been told or read about people’s attitudes and moral codes in those days.
Despite Ruth’s lack of time for reading, the author does maintain her previous practice of including crime fiction in her plot. Here, it takes the form of a set of detective novels left in a will by a keen reader to the one person he knew who showed an interest in the topic. The list of titles in the will comes with a code – a very simple one that the reader will instantly work out. Luckily, we are reading a novel in which Dr Ruth Galloway as the expert, and not a Dan Brown novel about Dr Robert Langdon, so it only takes her a chapter to crack the code which leads to the key to origin of the bones buried on the beach, rather than the whole book it would have taken Langdon.
Despite the unconvincing crime plot(s), the book is stacked full of lovely observations and vignettes of all kinds of people and their daily lives. Unlike some series authors, Elly Griffiths keeps up the pace of character development in each novel, as various people deal with practical and emotional outcomes of their actions. Above all, Ruth is a great, warm character and Harry makes me laugh; he is such a “type” and very well drawn. The author has a wonderful knack of leaving each book on an emotional cliffhanger, and she’s done it again this time – so I can’t wait to read the next instalment.