Contributor: Rosalind Esche
If you asked a random sample of Elly Griffiths readers what distinguishes her books in a crowded crime genre, they would almost certainly mention her warmth and humour. It’s probably safe to say that her series based in North Norfolk is her most popular, thanks to her much loved main character Ruth Galloway. Immense warmth emanates from the pages of these books, they are comforting, but not in a cosy way. There is darkness in them, but also a powerful sense of the strength of ordinary, flawed, but fundamentally decent people trying to do the right thing.
An evocative sense of place informs this series – the remote marshlands and vast skies of North Norfolk lend an eerie atmosphere to the setting in which these unnerving tales unfold. Ruth lives with her young daughter Kate and their cat Flint in one of three remote cottages, at the edge of what Elly Griffiths calls the Saltmarsh. Her description of this wild, lonely place which is neither land, nor sea, nor sky, but a liminal space between all three, is as haunting as any supernatural tale. Griffiths conjures the ghosts of sacred burial places and ancient henges, skilfully weaving superstition, folklore and myth into the fabric of her mysteries without compromising the credibility of the police investigation or Ruth’s forensic archaeology expertise.
However, the sinister aura of these unsettling stories is regularly dispelled by the author’s wry sense of humour, which she expresses through the interaction of her delightful cast of characters, for whom she clearly feels much goodwill and compassion. Archaeologist Dr. Ruth Galloway, who lectures at a (fictional) university in North Norfolk, is a most engaging character, professionally confident and very good at what she does, but less assured in other ways. Although she’s comfortable in her own skin, she is not immune to feelings of inadequacy about her weight, lack of dress sense and unruly hair. This vulnerability makes readers warm to Ruth. The developing story of her relationship with DCI Nelson is the fulcrum of the series, and is what keeps readers coming back for more.
One of Elly Griffiths’ many skills is her bringing together characters of very different backgrounds and beliefs, and forging plausible relationships between them. The friendship between DCI Nelson (a lapsed Catholic) and Cathbad (a Druid) is a moving and often humorous example of an unlikely, and yet utterly convincing, connection between two ostensibly incompatible people. The author explores her characters’ differing beliefs with a generosity of spirit that embraces a “many paths to God” philosophy.
This deeply satisfying series stands out in a crowded genre by virtue of the quality of the author’s writing, through which she has created a profound connection in readers’ hearts with her characters. If you are not already hooked on these wonderful books, start reading them now, and you soon will be.