Just what do you do when the 2000 year old skeleton you are in the process of excavating rings you up and, when you fail to answer, sends you a text message? You send for Ruth Galloway, of course. The Dark Angel, Elly Griffiths’ tenth novel featuring the Norfolk based forensic archeologist, begins in the Liri Valley in Italy where Professor Angelo Morelli, an old acquaintance of Ruth, is clearly as concerned about his television presence as he is about ‘Toni’, the skeleton he is unearthing. When his phone rings in the middle of shooting, the skeleton suddenly gets all his attention. The television moguls are not, however, amused and so, in a bid to save his media career, Angelo invites Ruth, who much to her dismay he sells to them as an international bones expert, to come over to Italy and give her opinion about Toni’s provenance.
Ruth is not in a good place. The Dark Angel takes up from exactly where The Chalk Pit ended, at DS Clough’s wedding. As we follow Ruth and her six year old daughter, Kate, to the reception, it is clear that she has been stunned by the announcement of Michelle Nelson’s pregnancy. Michelle is the wife of DCI Harry Nelson, who is Kate’s father, and the forthcoming birth of this unexpected child makes it very clear that any future that Ruth might have hoped for with Nelson is not going to materialise. When the call to Italy comes, with the promise of accommodation for her and Kate and the chance to stay on for a few days holiday afterwards, she welcomes the opportunity to get away. Accompanied by her friend Shona and Shona’s four year old Louis, Ruth takes herself off to sunnier climes.
Although two murders are committed, one in Italy and the other in Norfolk, they are not the focus of this novel which is actually about the concept of family and the legacy of grievances which can resurface from one generation to another. This manifests itself not only in the complications of Ruth’s relationship with Nelson but also in the history of Angelo’s family. To some Angelo’s recently deceased grandfather is a hero, others are not so sure. A member of the Italian resistance, he brought aid to the wartime partisans as they fought against the Nazis. Some people, however, argue that such individuals only made matters worse for the populace in general, bringing the wrath of Mussolini’s black shirts down on everyone, regardless of their involvement. Angelo and his mother Elsa defend his reputation vigorously but the undercurrents of ancient grievances are clearly there.
Wartime feuds are recent history, however, compared with the debate raging in academic circles as to the relative importance of the Romans when compared with the even older tribes who populated the region at the time when the smart phone savvy Toni was buried. The Volsci (remembered mostly in Britain for their role in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus) have had little attention paid to them but their descendants are determined that the ‘family’ will not be forgotten and are prepared to go to some lengths to prevent further excavation of Roman sites, pushing instead for investigations into the other Italic tribes.
Into this mix is introduced Samir, a Catholic Syrian refugee, who is separated from his family and has risked life and limb in order to try to meet up with them in Italy where he hopes to be able to build a new life for them all. There is an uncomfortable passage in the middle of the novel where his background is explained. Uncomfortable, because of what it is describing, but also uncomfortable because the writing is suddenly different from the rest of the text and as consequence it sticks out as a polemic rather than being better integrated into the story.
But then the whole novel is something of a polemic about the complexity of family and the difficulties that defence of family brings with it and as a result for me, at least, this undermines the overall structure of the story. The notion of the family is relevant to both crimes but the focus of the book is on neither and so they seem almost peripheral to what is happening. This really isn’t a crime novel; it is a novel about Ruth and Nelson’s relationship and as such I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as I have the earlier books in the series. Its saving grace is that, Samir’s exposition apart, it still maintains the rather quirky narrative voice which presides over the action and lets no one get away with anything even so much as resembling a half truth. Ruth packing for Italy asks What else does the conscientious mother need? Antiseptic cream? Nit comb? Gin? and paying their respects to Sunday as a day of spiritual significance Nelson and Michelle are in the modern British equivalent of church: a garden centre. And it has Kate, a far more active presence than in previous books, who, with her Paddington hard stares is ever bit as effective as the narrator when it comes to deflating adult egos. So, not a complete disaster, but not what I was looking for when I picked this book up. I hope when we next meet Ruth it will be in a more crime focused context and that her personal life will be a little less to the fore.
With thanks to Quercus Books and Net Galley for making a copy of this book available.