The Dark Angel ~ Elly Griffiths

IMG_0001Just 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.

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The Outcast Dead ~ Elly Griffiths

the outcast dead_72ppi.jpg{w=239,h=363}.thAt some point in 2009 someone must have recommended that I read Elly Griffiths’ first novel, The Crossing Place. Perhaps I read about it on a blog, maybe it was a newspaper review, it may even have been word of mouth. However that first meeting with forensic archeologist, Ruth Galloway, came about, from the moment I read the opening words I was completely sold. Why? Because of a narrative voice which is surely unique. Ms Griffiths could have been writing a shopping list and I would have gone on reading just to spend longer in the company of the quirky third person present tense form of story telling which means however harrowing the events that are being described the reader is always distanced slightly by the unexpected asides of a narrator who doesn’t mind admitting they see life in a less than orthodox way.

And the events in The Outcast Dead, the sixth full-length outing for Ruth and Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, are often very harrowing indeed because the primary concern in this novel is the death and disappearance of small children.  From the opening question as to whether or not Liz Donaldson is guilty of killing at least the youngest of her three sons, through the abduction of two toddlers and the link with Ruth’s excavation of the body of a Victorian woman hung for the murder of a child she was minding, the distress of the weakest and most vulnerable in society is never far away.  Neither are we allowed to forget the anguish of the parents of these children, most especially as we watch the least emotional member of Nelson’s team disintegrate before our eyes when her young son vanishes.  We have, of course, been here before in the last of Griffiths’ novels, A Dying Fall, when it was Ruth’s daughter, Kate, who was abducted, but somehow this novel works the theme more convincingly, perhaps because the various elements of the story – the police investigation, the excavation and what is happening in Ruth’s private life – all come together to support the same concern.

The storyline will also speak to many of its readers because of what it has to say about the issues that face the working mother.  Kate certainly doesn’t seem to suffer from Ruth’s return to the university, indeed Ruth’s only concern is that her daughter will love the childminder more than she does her.  But not everyone we met in the book is convinced that returning to work is an acceptable thing for a mother to do and while the story behind the university’s current excavation makes it clear that the problem is nothing new, the question of whether it is a decision that is always taken in the child’s best interest is definitely raised.

As is the question of how far you should go to save a marriage that appears to be floundering. Ruth has (almost) accepted that Nelson is never going to leave his wife and live as a family with her and Kate.  Indeed, in her more honest moments she knows that this is a relationship she would find hard to sustain.  But there are other marriages strained to breaking point in this story and Griffiths explores the extremes to which some people will go in order to bolster up a relationship that has, in reality, become toxic for all concerned.

This is the best that Griffiths has been for some time.  Bringing a fresh face in in the person of DS Tim Heathfield has allowed her to offer new insights into characters that might just have started to become stale and my concern that in exiling Cathbad (Ruth’s druid friend) to the wilds of Lancashire she was losing one of the strongest elements of her stories proves to be unfounded.  Cathbad knows how to make an entrance.

And, there is still that wonderful narrative voice.  Who is the observer who recounts these stories to us?  Despite the fact that she shares her outlook on life, it isn’t Ruth because there are times when the point of view shifts.  Does it matter?  Not really, because whoever it is shares my outlook on life too and I will go back to this and the other novels in this series time and time again to enjoy not only the story but the storyteller as well.

With thanks to Quercus Publishing, who made this book available for review.