It’s always a little worrisome to read the second book in a series when you’ve really been impressed by the first one. I loved The Crossing Places: it has a terrific setting and characters in addition to being well written and expertly plotted. So I started The Janus Stone with some trepidation. Here’s an example of how good Elly Griffiths is: her primary character, Ruth Galloway, is pregnant. The title of this book refers to the classical god Janus, the deity of transitions, doorways, beginnings and endings. Ruth, of course, is in a liminal situation as she comes to grips with her pregnancy. And the mystery itself involves possible sacrifices to Janus. Very neat.
Once again, the setting is an archaeological dig in Norfolk — actually several of them. Once again, the subject is bones. It pretty much has to be, since Dr. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist. She gets called in to read skeletons when they turn up on digs. In The Janus Stone, the skeleton in question is that of a young girl, buried in the doorway of a big house that’s being torn down to make way for luxury apartments. Since the skull is missing, DCI Harry Nelson gets called in. Thing is, Nelson, happily married, is the father of Ruth’s baby. The baby is a girl, so both Nelson and Ruth get worked up about the uncomfortable echoes between the tragic case and their own awkwardly entangled lives. Of course Ruth is threatened, and eventually confronts the murderer. Of course she survives the final violent showdown. And, because Griffiths has made her a forceful, capable woman, there’s no white-knight rescue.
Ambiguities remain, and are welcome. What exactly does Nelson feel for Ruth? How the hell is Ruth going to bring up a baby in her isolated cottage on the Saltmarsh? What about those colorful secondary characters like the Druid Cathbad and the beautiful self-involved Shona?
My concern for the series is that Griffiths may have painted herself into a plot corner. We’ve already seen some repetition, with menacing offerings at Ruth’s doorstep, and Ruth being attacked on archaeological sites. In a way, what makes this series unique may prove confining. But Griffiths is a terrific writer and her characters are appealing, so I’m certainly going to keep reading.