Another mystery with one of those baffling meaningless titles that I can’t quite relate to the narrative — but never mind, it’s the new Elly Griffiths. And that means time spent with Ruth Galloway, the forensic archaeologist who can read bones. And, this being a fairly conventional mystery, that also means readers get another dose of Ruth’s hopeless love for Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, who is fairly happily married even if he is the father of Ruth’s child. Oh, and of course there is a death, too.
Griffiths manages two unusual achievements in Dying Fall. The first is transferring her cast of characters to a new setting. Ruth, Nelson, and the Druid Cathbad are usually found in Norfolk. But in Dying Fall, they head north to Lancashire. All of them. Ruth goes on a semi-academic quest, Nelson and his wife Michelle go on a family vacation. Yes, of course they meet up. Sometimes mystery series rooted in a certain locale lose energy when they’re uprooted (as in Craig Johnson taking his protagonist Walt Longmire to Philadelphia). Not the case here, though. Ruth and her entourage work just fine off their home turf.
Which brings me to the second achievement: in this novel Griffiths delicately and successfully bridges mayhem and humor. Here, for instance, we’re in the head of Maureen, Nelson’s redoubtable Irish Catholic mother, in church.
Now, Maureen prays angrily for her favourite child. Please, God, let him see the error of his arrogant ways. Keep him safe, Lord, and let him realise his many blessings. At the sign of peace she holds Michelle’s hand tightly. Though she doesn’t know why, she suddenly feels very protective towards her daughter-in-law.
‘Peace be with you, my darling,’ she says huskily.
‘Thank you,’ says Michelle, who can never remember what she’s meant to say in return.
In fact there’s quite a bit of material about belief systems in Dying Fall. Readers of Griffiths‘ previous books will be familiar with the slightly loopy quality of Cathbad the Druid, who was originally Michael Malone. (He verges on New Age-annoying, but his sincerity and kindness, as well as his devotion to Ruth and Kate, make him sympathetic.) Then in addition to Maureen Nelson’s Catholicism we encounter a skeleton that may be King Arthur’s, which is of great interest to a group of white supremacists operating around a small Lancashire university. That, obviously, is where Ruth and Nelson’s mystery-solving capacities come in handy. But Griffiths also alludes to a contemporary faith in celebrity. The climactic scene of the novel takes place in an amusement park where, for some obscure reason, many of the visitors are wearing masks with the likeness of Simon Cowell on them. It’s as nightmarish as any of the more conventionally creepy scenes in this satisfying book.