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