So I’m a little late to the party where the Ruth Galloway series is concerned. The Outcast Dead is the sixth book by Elly Griffiths to feature the forensic archaeologist who investigates crime – past and present – along the windswept Norfolk coast.
The blurb is pulling on a pair of wellingtons:
Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway has excavated a body from the grounds of Norwich Castle, once a prison. The body may be that of Victorian murderess Jemima Green. Called Mother Hook for her claw-like hand, Jemima was hanged for the murder of five children.
DCI Harry Nelson has no time for long-ago killers. Investigating the case of three infants found dead, one after the other, in their King’s Lynn home, he’s convinced that their mother is responsible.
Then a child goes missing. Could the abduction be linked to the long-dead Mother Hook? Ruth is pulled into the case, and back towards Nelson.
I really liked Ruth Galloway. She’s a terrific protag. Fiercely independent and intelligent, but filled with insecurities about her place in the world. She’s a hugely empathetic – and, thank god, flawed – character. Her deadpan observations about the people around her are acerbic and witty. Griffiths gives her plenty of ammunition when she becomes involved in a lurid documentary series called Women Who Kill, staffed by telly people with names like Aslan.
Griffiths knows all her characters backwards – DCI Harry Nelson and his team of coppers, and Ruth’s work colleagues – are all well established and likeable, and you really get a strong sense of their tangled relationships as well you should after half a dozen novels. It doesn’t take long to get up to speed with all the soapy shenanigans – oh, so Ruth’s got a child with Nelson, but he’s married to this other woman, okay, and Ruth’s married but she’s got a thing for the druid guy in the cloak, and he’s gone up north to get over it.
The backstory is so layered and the relationships between the characters so comfortable – they’re like a squabbling family – that, picking up the thread six books in, I found myself a bit like an outsider looking in at first. Like I’d been invited to a party only to discover everyone there goes waaaay back together. But I soon got over it. And, anyway, I like tangled, I like characters to grow and develop. I don’t like those series of books where all the characters default to factory settings with every new instalment.
The title, The Outcast Dead, refers to a ceremony honouring the unknown dead of Norwich, and there’s a overwhelming holistic sense of time and place in this novel – a sensation that the past continues to exert an influence on the present. And, of course, Ruth’s unearthing of the 18th century remains of a notorious child killer called Mother Hook – a woman who took in unwanted children – has parallels with the ongoing investigation into the abduction of children by someone calling themselves The Childminder.
These historical connections really resonate, and Griffiths runs with the theme of the anxieties of working women who are forced – or choose – to place their children with strangers. The rich history of the North Norfolk coast – with its remote and wild Saltmarshes – provides even more spiritual texture to the proceedings. The rich history of the region is soaked into every page like sherry into sponge. Griffiths even throws in some vague supernatural stuff.
The whole thing feels comfortable. That’s not a criticism. Griffiths knows her cast of characters inside out, and her love of that part of Norfolk is clear. The crime aspect of the narratives stutters to lift off, perhaps, but there’s a lot to enjoy along the way. The prose is crisp and wry, and because the theme of the book is so strong, there’s a resonance and momentum to the writing.
Many thanks to Quercus for the review copy. I’m delighted to say that later in the week Elly Griffiths will be giving us The Intel on The Outcast Dead, Ruth Galloway and, of course, her writing regime.