Norfolk, Archaeology, and a Touch of Crime: The Ruth Galloway Mysteries

The cover of The Crossing Places shows a black owl with yellow eyes atop a black perch, against a turquoise background.

By Julie F.

London native and Brighton resident Elly Griffiths has had a phenomenal (and very busy!) career since publishing the first Ruth Galloway mystery, The Crossing Places, in 2009. The author of three children’s books, the Stephens and Mephisto historical mystery series, and the Harbinder Kaur mystery series, she is the winner of the 2020 Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Novel for the first Kaur mystery, The Stranger Diaries. She also won the Dagger in the Library award from the Crime Writers’ Association, which is a prize for a body of work by a crime writer that users of libraries particularly admire.

Although all of her work is acclaimed, the Ruth Galloway novels are especially beloved by her devoted readers. Ruth is a forensic archaeologist who teaches at the University of North Norfolk, where her best friend, Shona, is married to the head of Ruth’s department. Over the span of thirteen novels, Ruth nurtures a passion for the work that consumes her academic life but also spills over into her personal life and a second job as an adjunct to the North Norfolk police constabulary. Like many police officers, DCI Harry Nelson is haunted by the one case he couldn’t solve – that of a missing five-year-old, who was taken from her parents’ home ten years ago and is now missing, presumed dead. When bones are discovered on the beach near Ruth’s home, DCI Nelson calls on Ruth to help the police date and identify them. An Iron Age discovery ensues, another child goes missing, and Ruth finds herself pulled into a case that has ramifications both past and present. The Crossing Places is an excellent start to a series where following the quirky, familiar characters we learn to love doesn’t overshadow the intensity of the mystery; Griffiths is skilled at developing both character AND plot.

Through the course of the series, Ruth has chilling adventure after adventure: she carbon-dates bones found on the site of an old children’s home in the process of being demolished; she attends the scene of the discovery of a downed World War II plane which presumably has the skeleton of the pilot intact; and a jaunt to Italy at the request of a fellow archaeologist needing help with his own most recent discovery results in a kind of working holiday. As the books progress, her relationship with DCI Nelson, both professional and personal, goes through a series of ups and downs that has the reader rooting for both the cranky but decent old-school DCI and the strong-willed, independent archaeologist.

The cover of The Night Hawks shows a backlit red house with a triangular roof, with dark trees above and green grass in the foreground.

The most recent novel, The Night Hawks, has the titular group of treasure hunters combing the beach in North Norfolk when they come across a body – and a cache of Bronze Age weapons, which is of real interest to Ruth and a new university colleague. DCI Nelson speculates that the body, which is not from antiquity, might be that of an asylum seeker who washed overboard in a storm, but the death is quickly linked to a murder-suicide at a nearby house, Black Dog Farm. The name ties into local legend about a huge, spectral black dog who haunts the area, adding an element of the paranormal to an already complicated mystery.

Both The Crossing Places and The Night Hawks are worthy additions to a compelling series, but I can recommend every entry – I’ve read and enjoyed every story involving DCI Nelson and his team, and Ruth and her colleagues, for well over a decade now. I’m still looking forward to more suspenseful mysteries from them – in a recent interview, Elly Griffiths said she is hard at work on the fourteenth Ruth Galloway novel, The Locked Room. Fans of Louise Penny, Ann Cleeves, and other writers of character-driven police procedurals will find much to enjoy and admire about this suspenseful series.

Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch who finds her work as co-editor of Chapter Chats very rewarding. She loves gardening, birds, books, all kinds of music, and the great outdoors.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

The book cover shows two boys running in silhouette against a dark foreground and blue sky with clouds, between two leafy trees.

by Aimee Z.

In a small, forgotten Mississippi town, a vicious crime and a missing girl are like déjà vu for hapless farmer and hermit, Larry Ott. Decades before, the man the whole town still calls ‘Scary Larry,’ took local girl Cindy Walker on his first and only date. The girl never came home, and her body was never found.

Blame fell on Larry Ott, and he became a pariah to everyone, including his parents. But the one person Larry could not bear to lose was his best friend from childhood, Silas Jones. Silas “32” Jones, a black man, once dirt poor, worked hard over the years to earn the respectability he covets as the town’s lawman.

Now another girl – a politician’s daughter – has gone missing. Once more, the town is certain Larry did it. The last thing Silas needs is anything to do with Larry Ott – until he responds to the 911 call: Larry Ott’s been shot by an intruder and is now in intensive care. It doesn’t look good.

Silas’s struggle to do the right thing is what makes this book a small gem. Readers will settle in to assume that this is another insignificant southern town, bristling with economic despair and racism, but they’ll be wrong. Sure, Franklin creates an oppressive atmosphere where heat and kudzu vines flourish, and neighbors get back at neighbors with the occasional cottonmouth snake in the mailbox. Urban legends, racism, ignorance, child abuse, and the small-town need for a whipping boy abound. We need a hero, and refreshingly, Franklin has given that role to Silas.

At the same time, any connection to Larry Ott could put Silas back on that precipice of racism. But as he investigates and pursues the perpetrator, unearthing the bones of an old crime, Silas’s conflicted emotions press to a breaking point. Will he admit to the complicated part he once played in the harrowing life he shared with Larry Ott? If only he could forget turning his back on Larry when Larry needed him most.

Part thriller, part literary fiction, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is still a book I want to press into everyone’s hands. I think it should also be part of the high school curriculum. An eloquent and tender story, it will shape any reader’s collective consciousness regarding race and what it means to be a friend. 

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is also available from HCLS as an ebook from Libby/Overdrive, and in audiobook format on CD.

Aimee Z. is part of the adult research staff at HCLS East Columbia Branch. She lives on a lake with her two labs, Dixie and Belle, who enthusiastically approved the content of this review in exchange for a peanut butter and jelly biscuit.