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.

Red Bones by Ann Cleeves

The book cover is blue, with a dark sky and the full moon over the shoreline in Shetland.  An isolated white building is in the distance and the moonlight stretches over the water from the foreground to the horizon.

Review by Julie F.

Red Bones, the third book in the Shetland series of mysteries by Ann Cleeves, delves into the family of Sandy Wilson, the young policeman who works for main series character Jimmy Perez. Sandy’s family lives on one of the outlying Shetland islands, Whalsay, in a small community where an archaeologist has recently unearthed bones that may or may not be “ancient history.” When tragedy ensues, Detective Inspector Perez investigates how Sandy’s extended family, as well as the students and professor involved with the dig, might be culpable. Not just a family drama, the story also recounts how an isolated community of individuals gossips, lies, and hides secrets, even from those they love the most.

The novel is also an interesting exploration of Sandy’s character. Early in the book, Perez is, “surprised that Sandy had shown so much initiative, wondered if he should congratulate him or if that would just be patronizing. In the office Sandy was always considered a bit of a joke. Perez had shared the low opinion at times” (35). Based on that description and his actions in the first two books in the series, Sandy could easily develop into a stock plodding detective, uninspired and demonstrating little intelligence or motivation. Instead, we see Perez give him challenges and progressively more difficult assignments throughout the case. He struggles with hard questions, matures, and takes on more responsibility, which is a testimony to Ann Cleeves’ ability to keep her characters multi-dimensional.

One of the things I love most about these books is how the characters and their relationships to one another grow throughout the series. Although the book furthers Perez’s personal story, including his budding relationship with artist Fran Hunter and her daughter Cassie, it is equally Sandy’s story, and that of the generations on the island who share a collective past both desperate and painful.

I listened to the audiobook on CloudLibrary as I read along, and narrator Gordon Griffin, an actor and dialogue coach, conveyed Cleeves’ beautiful, remote setting with dramatic (but never overblown) narration in an authentic accent.

I highly recommend the first two Shetland books, Raven Black and White Nights. If you enjoy the work of Ann Cleeves, look for her DI Vera Stanhope series (the first one is The Crow Trap, available as an ebook) as well as her newest series, Two Rivers, set in Devon, England and featuring detective Matthew Venn. The first book, The Long Call, is also available in ebook and eaudiobook from Libby/OverDrive. And if you enjoy the novels, both Shetland and Vera are available in DVD format at HCLS in television series produced by the BBC and ITV, respectively.

Ann Cleeves is a 2017 winner of the Diamond Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association, the highest honor in British crime writing. She also won the Agatha Award in the Best Contemporary Novel category for The Long Call. Visit her website to learn more about this remarkable author.

Julie is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she facilitates two book discussion groups – Spies, Lies, and Alibis and Bas Bleu.