In The Spotlight: Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime fiction series do more than just tell the story of crimes and their investigation. They also give the reader a portrait of a particular place or sort of setting and the people who live and work in it. That’s the sort of series Elly Griffiths has written so to show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight today on the first in her Ruth Galloway series, The Crossing Places.

When a set of old bones is discovered in a remote area of Norlfolk called the Saltmarsh, DCI Harry Nelson visits the Archaeology Department at the University of North Norfolk, He wants to know how old the bones are because he suspects they may be the bones of Lucy Downey, who disappeared ten years earlier. Nelson was one of the investigators on the original team and at the time of the disappearance, he received a series of letters that seemed to come from the person who abducted Lucy. No trace of the girl has been found though, and he has been haunted by his inability to solve the case and give her parents some resolution. Dr. Ruth Galloway, an expert on bone presentation, agrees to go with Nelson to look at the bones and give an opinion about their probable age. To her surprise, the bones turn out to belong to a girl from the Iron Age, and this opens up all sorts of possibilities for new research. So once Nelson is satisfied that the site won’t be needed for his criminal investigation, it’s opened up for new excavation.

Excited about this new development, Galloway doesn’t think too much about the more modern mystery until Nelson contacts her again. This time it’s because he’s received another letter that’s quite possibly from the person who abducted Lucy Downey. What’s more, the letter makes a veiled reference to another girl Scarlet Henderson who’s just recently been abducted. Nelson wants Galloway to look at the letters as a whole and see whether she can get any idea of the kind of person who might have written them. She recognises some of the quotes and references the writer uses although at first they don’t point to any one person. Then she remembers a man named Michael Malone AKA Cathbad, who worked with her on a dig ten years earlier and who might have the knowledge needed to write the letters.

Galloway had never thought of Cathbad as a murderer but when Nelson tracks him down, she’s no longer quite as sure of herself as she was. At the very least he represents a connection between the excavation of a very old site and the more recent disappearances. But there are certainly other likely possibilities, and Cathbad claims that he is innocent. So when he asks Galloway to help clear his name, she agrees. As Nelson and Galloway, each in a different way, investigate these disappearances, they slowly discover that it’s impossible to say who can be trusted and who can’t. That becomes even clearer when Galloway herself becomes a target. Then Galloway discovers one important clue that points her towards the answer. And in the end she and Nelson put the pieces of the puzzle together.

This is among other things a police investigation (although honestly, I wouldn’t classify at as a police procedural). So one of the important elements in the story is the actual case. Readers follow along as Nelson interviews people, tries to make sense of clues, follows leads and the like. Readers also follow along as Galloway uncovers leads and clues as well in her way. And it is to Griffiths’ credit that Galloway doesn’t do ‘police work.’ She is an expert called in by the police, but her professional involvement in the investigation says believable.

But the police investigation is only one of many strong elements in the novel. Another is the look we get at academic life. Galloway is a professor associated with the University of North Norfolk, so readers see that side of her life. There are student meetings, lectures, departmental issues and the like. And because Galloway is an archaeologist, there’s also a fascinating look at the way excavation teams work, how they set their priorities, how they go about investigating a site, and so on. And Griffiths doesn’t sugarcoat it:


‘Ruth remembers from the henge excavation that digging on this marshy land is a tricky business. The furthest trench, which is beyond the tide mark, will fill with water every night. This means it will, in effect, have to be dug afresh every day. And the tide can take you by surprise.’


It’s dirty, tiring and sometimes very physically uncomfortable. But Galloway loves her job and it’s obvious.

Another strong element in this novel is the physical setting. The Saltmarsh, where Galloway lives and where much of the story takes place is lonely and inhospitable. Galloway enjoys the solitude and there is a wild beauty in the marshland, the birds and the lack of overcrowding and noise. But it’s a stark place that’s not to everyone’s liking. It makes a very effective backdrop for the events in the story though and the sudden weather changes add to the suspense.

As much as anything else, this novel tells both Galloway’s and Nelson’s personal stories. It’s told from both of their points of view, alternating between them as the story goes on. Readers who prefer only one perspective will notice this but it’s always clear whose point of view is being shared, and Griffiths uses this strategy very effectively to tell both characters’ backstories. And it turns out that their histories do play important roles in the story.

Galloway and Nelson are interesting characters too. Galloway is single by choice and lives alone with her cats. But she’s hardly a ‘crazy cat lady’ although she does have a wry sense of humour about the way she lives. She isn’t conventionally beautiful but her intelligence, capability and ability to be sympathetic are appealing, and it’s easy to see why Nelson is drawn to her.  For his part, Nelson is dedicated to his job but not one of those stereotypical obsessed cops who drink too much and don’t care about anyone else. He loves his children and is devoted to his wife. At first, Nelson and Galloway are drawn together mostly by the puzzle they’re trying to solve. As the story goes on though, their relationship turns personal. And yet, it happens naturally and neither of them has unrealistic expectations about it.

There’s also a cast of other interesting characters in this novel. There’s Galloway’s best friend Shona, a fellow academic. There’s the Druid Cathbad, who has fascinating depths and who knows the ancient henge the dig team excavates. There’s also Galloway’s mentor Erik Anderssen, who travels from his home in Norway to help with the new dig when the Iron Age remains are discovered. And there are very real portraits of both Scarlet Henderson’s family and Lucy Downey’s.

The Crossing Places is the story of three past and present mysteries, all related and all tied up in the personal stories of Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson. It takes place in a starkly beautiful and distinctive setting and features a look at the world of archaeology as well as a real-life look at ‘cold case’ police investigations. But what’s your view? Have you read The Crossing Places? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Oh, and I don’t usually make this point about the books I put in the spotlight but I will in this case. The Crossing Places is the first in what I consider an excellent series that I hope you’ll get the chance to follow.




Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 8 April/Tuesday 9 April – The Case of the Gilded Fly – Edmund Crispin

Monday 15 April /Tuesday 16 April – The Precipice – Virginia Duigan

Monday 22 April/Tuesday 23 April – The Diggers Rest Hotel – Geoffrey McGeachin


Filed under Elly Griffiths, The Crossing Places

24 responses to “In The Spotlight: Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places

  1. I absolutely adore this series so thanks for a great post Margot, and like you, I hope even more people discover the wonderful Elly Griffiths 🙂

  2. I have got to read this author this year. My husband likes her books (and has them… a plus). And I have read so many good reviews of the series. Thanks for profiling this book.

    You answered one of my questions. Not really a police procedural. But combining the investigation and archaeology. No wonder my husband likes them.

    • Tracy – Oh, I’m so glad you have the novels easy to hand. Griffiths really does take a novel approach in this series; yes there are elements of police work. But the other aspects of the series are really important too, and in my mind, add such a richness to the stories. I sincerely hope you’ll get the chance to try the series and that if you do, you’ll like it.

  3. kathy d.

    I love this series, have read all of the books thus far, and am now in the midst of A Dying Fall, the fifth one.
    The main reason I’m so fond of it is Ruth Galloway, a favorite character. Unglamorous and not a social climber, she is a down-to-earth middle-aged woman and archaeology professor who solves murders, always cooperating with the police. She’s smart and painstakingly does the required work.
    At the same time, she has interesting friends and complicated personal relationships. A reader likes particular friends and looks forward to reading about them as well as Ruth. Family complications ensue but they’re interesting to follow, too.
    A devoted reader feels like she knows Ruth and her friends, and I, for one, can’t wait to pick up this latest book whenever I get a few minutes.

    • Kathy – I couldn’t agree more about Ruth Galloway as a character. Her appeal is her down-to-earth personality. And I like her friends and the other characters in the series as well; they add richness to the series. So does the ongoing set of family issues. I’m with you completely when it comes to catching up on the novels as they come out.

  4. I love this book Margot and am so glad that you are highlighting this series. I look forward to each new book and the return of all the characters. Cathbad is my absolute favourite.

    • Sarah – Cathbad is an absolutely wonderful character isn’t he? I think one thing I like most about him is that he’s not easy to pin down but at the same time, he’s not annoyingly enigmatic. He’s fascinating. And trust me, it was a pleasure to highlight this book.

  5. So glad you featured this! One of my very favourite series, and I agree with all the comments above, as well as your review. Ruth Galloway is such a great character, but I love Nelson too. And the books are very funny.

    • Moira – There is plenty of wit in the novels, and I’m glad you mentioned that as I didn’t (and should have). And it’s that slow, gentle wit (in my opinion) that almost sneaks up on one. You’re right too that Nelson is an interesting character. I so much like that he’s got a real soul if I can put it that way.

  6. Not read this author yet Margot – thanks very much for the detailed ‘tour’ – sound really good!

    • Sergio – I hope that if you get the chance to try Griffiths’ work, you’ll like it. To me it’s a really fine blend of investigation/mystery, setting and characters.

  7. kathy d.

    Who could not like this concept, as written in the current book “A Dying Fall,” about Ruth’s thoughts: “But she didn’t say any of this because, despite being a druid, Cathbad had unblocked the sink that morning.” Who doesn’t get pulled in by that?

  8. I keep recommending this book to friends since I read it about a month ago: thanks for highlighting it, Margo!

  9. col

    Margot, you’ve nearly sold it to me especially with some of the other comments on here……just not sure if I need to add more to the pile, hmmm.

    • Col – Oh, I am all too aware of the TBR challenge. To add or not to add can sometimes be a tough decision. In my opinion, this series is definitely worth adding.

  10. I’m a fan of Elly Griffiths’s books too. I’ve read them all, except for her latest one. I just wish she didn’t write in the present tense!

    • Margaret – Griffiths really does have so much talent – it’s very hard not to be a fan. It’s interesting too that you’d mention that present tense thing. I’ll admit it took me a bit of time to get used to it. I’ll also admit I don’t write that way and it’s not for everyone. But even with that, Griffiths is so far above so many other writers…

  11. You’ve sold me on yet another writer, Margot! I am so grateful to you and other book blogger whose knowledge and opinion about crime fiction I respect. You are making me discover so many new things. I’m just reading this first book in the series now and enjoying it a lot. Partly also because I wanted to check something about the two very different characters, the use of tenses and POV (I’m trying to do something similar in my novel and wasn’t sure if it was working or not). I have finally opted to go a different route, but it’s interesting to see how Elly Griffiths makes it work.

    • Marina Sofia – I’m so glad you’re enjoying that novel so much. I have to say that’s a series that I like very much and recommend highly. And it’s interesting that you’re also using it to figure out what your own way approaching your novel will be. I think talented writers can be very helpful in that respect. I’m very excited to read your story. Oh, and I couldn’t agree more about book bloggers; some of the best novels I’ve read were recommendations from book bloggers I trust.

  12. Michael Ardington

    Hi, I loved the first three books that I listened to as audio books, but when I attempted to read the fourth as a normal book, the present tense just didn’t work.
    Ms. Griffiths is a gifted writer and plot weaver, but if I’m going to continue the series it will have to be in the audio form.
    I’ve read other reviews of her books and some folks say that after awhile you get accustomed to the present tense, but I gave it two full chapters before giving up.
    I’ll wait for the audio.

    • You’re not the only one, Michael, who feels that way about the use of the present tense.It’s really jarring to some, even in the hands of a very talented writer like Griffiths. And you have a point; sometimes the format can make a big difference in terms of whether or not one enjoys a writer’s work. So if you prefer audio, why not go for that format?

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s