Monday, June 2, 2014

The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths

Reviewed by Jeanne

Ruth Galloway is a British forensic archaeologist who lives in Norfolk, a mostly rural area near a salt marsh. She’s had her share of encounters with the police, partly as a result of her work, and is friends with  DCI Harry Nelson.  Actually, a bit more than friends, as they have a child together, Kate, but Harry is married with two teenage daughters and still in love with his wife.  It makes for a complicated situation, but Griffiths is careful not to let it all devolve into soap opera.

 The Outcast Dead finds Ruth doing some excavating near Norwich Castle where she’s uncovered the bones of a woman with a hook for a hand.  Speculation is rampant that these are the remains of the notorious Mother Hook, a woman who was executed in 1867 for murdering a child in her care.  Ruth is more cautious, but not so her boss at the university:  Phil has been contacted by a television producer with an interest in the find. Meanwhile, Nelson is investigating a child’s death in a household where two other children had already died, apparently of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which Nelson finds very suspicious. Then, just to up the ante, another child is kidnapped.

Griffiths’ writing is wonderful.  Her characters are fully realized, complex people, and she has a knack for making the settings come to life.  Her commentary on various aspects of life, from working mothers to television, is thoughtful and funny.  Ruth is no superwoman but neither does she indulge in self-pity.  I am fascinated with the relationship between Ruth and Harry.  There’s a strong attraction, but neither can really imagine being together in a marriage or even a long-term relationship.  Physically, Ruth is on the heavy side, unfashionable, and awkward-- not at all your typical heroine.

 The mystery aspects of the books are also well done, and Griffiths seems to know what she’s talking about with the technical aspects of Ruth’s job.  Each book has had a strong historical element as befits a book about an archaeologist, but there’s also a current danger.

One of the things I enjoy about the books is the tone.  There’s a certain degree of detachment in the narration which I find appealing, and while Ruth has opinions, the books never turn preachy or serve as the author’s soapbox. 

While you don’t have to read the books in order, it does make for a more enjoyable experience, especially as the relationships between some characters have changed.  I recommend the series for mystery fans who like a dose of history and who appreciate a strong setting and complex characters.

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