I’ve been wondering how Elly Griffiths would manage expanding the Ruth Galloway series. I really liked her two earlier books, The Crossing Places and The Janus Stone but as I’ve written over and over again here, maintaining the momentum in a mystery series requires keeping a lot of balls in the air. And I was a little concerned, too, about Griffiths‘ principal protagonist. After all — how many plots are there for a single, overweight forensic archaeologist living in rural Norfolk?
Well, there are at least three really satisfying ones, which is surprising since someone has to discover old bones in order to drag Dr. Ruth Galloway into the story. In this case the location — always important in Griffiths‘ books — is an eroded cliff on the Norfolk coast. Atop the cliff sits Sea’s End House, a mansion dating from the 1930s, inhabited by the upper-crust family of Jack Hastings. But what makes this more interesting than the usual English Country House scenario is precisely that erosion. The land on which the house is built has been reclaimed by the sea so that only a few yards of grass remain between house and cliff. Hmmm… metaphor for the ground being cut away beneath the upper class?
Actually, I don’t think so. Griffiths is too interested in her characters’ emotional lives to have a class-struggle axe to grind. The relationship between prickly, brilliant Ruth and prickly, abrupt police detective Harry Nelson continues to evolve in the only way you’d want it to — more and more complicated. The opening scene of the novel involves Ruth, Nelson, and Nelson’s beautiful wife Michelle. I liked it so much I had to read it twice. Incredibly clever, the way Griffiths pulls away from the characters here and sees them in pantomime, as it were. One of the most difficult choices for a novelist is deciding where to focus your narrative: if you think of the author’s voice as a camera lens, it can zoom really close, into someone’s head, or zoom out to panoramic scope. Changing the focus, as Griffiths does in that scene, can be a sharply effective way to grab your reader’s attention.
And the plot, you ask? In this case the old bones turn out to be those of six German soldiers who appear to have been executed about 70 years ago. (Do the math.) The new deaths necessary to involve Harry Nelson are those of survivors who might be able to tell how the bones were buried. Did you know that the Norfolk coast was prepared for a German invasion in World War II? Want to know more? The House at Sea’s End has the rest of the story.
Publishing note: I read this on my Kindle, and I see that it’s not being released in the US in a physical version until January 2012.