Book Review


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The Stone Circle, by Elly Griffiths

This is the eleventh book in the Ruth Galloway series; a series which was originally intended to encompass ten books so, taking a charitable approach, one has to assume that the series has been so successful that an extension was appropriate; I have no reason to decry this decision because, although I haven’t read the whole series [depending entirely upon those which are available from my local library], I have thoroughly enjoyed the ones I have read hitherto, and have come to look forward to reading more exploits of the regular characters who are mainly (although not always entirely) likeable. Elly Griffiths is interesting to me as an author, because she reverses the normal authorial convention: this is actually a nom de plume, presumably chosen [although see below] to appear to be quite British [or Welsh, to be specific] and consequently instantly acceptable to the majority of British readers, whereas her birth name is Domenica de Rosa [Italian for Sunday of the rose] which, although born in this country, she acquired from her Italian father. After writing four novels featuring Italy [write about what you know!] a holiday in Norfolk with her archaeologist husband inspired her to write the first of the Ruth Galloway series; her agent, who saw the potential in it but recognised that it was a crime novel, in contrast to the earlier ones, recommended that she needed a crime name appropriate to the genre, and hence she became Elly Griffiths!

This story does have certain overlaps with previous stories, but that isn’t to imply that it is merely a cynical rehash: quite the opposite, it demonstrates continuity and in some ways, there are advantages, because it can be seen how characters respond to new situations with the benefit of their experience from these earlier situations; and Ruth’s work does have a certain repetitive quality about it. Archaeology expert Ruth Galloway is investigating a burial pit in a henge on the Norfolk coast, close to another one she worked on previously, during which she came into contact with two of the series’s main characters: an endearing (but occasionally also irritating, in equal measure) man who goes by the name of Cathbad, although his birth name is Michael Malone, and he regards himself as a druid, but latterly he seems to have embraced a somewhat more conventional lifestyle with his current partner, a police Detective Sergeant called Judy Johnson; and the father of Ruth’s daughter, Kate, Harry Nelson, a Detective Chief Inspector and Judy’s boss. He is married with two adult daughters, and feels somewhat trapped in this marriage, notwithstanding that he also loves his wife, who is pregnant again at the beginning of the story, & daughters, and his work (somewhat conveniently, it has to be said) regularly brings him into contact with Ruth; he does willingly, and with no complaint from Ruth, visit Kate (whom he insists on calling Katie, much to Ruth’s annoyance), so this doesn’t greatly help Ruth romantically, although she does also enjoy her own space, and there is currently another male suitor in the equation, a visiting Historical Consultant from America, who has been brought in to work as a presenter on a television documentary which also features Ruth.

In the course of Ruth’s digging, the skeleton of a child is found nearby, and there is sufficient evidence that this skeleton is relatively recent, compared to the first remains found by Ruth, so Nelson’s team becomes involved. There is a real concern that the skeleton could be that of a 12-year old young girl, Margaret Lacey, who went missing thirty years ago, so it is important for the family that this can be confirmed, which it is, to give them closure, but also, ideally, to identify the perpetrator. There was a suspect at the time, a young man of obviously limited intellectual capabilities who lived with his mother, but whose alibi, from his mother, was unassailable, so he remained at liberty, albeit grudgingly by the contemporary investigating officers. All of the victim’s family are reinvestigated, and in the course of the story, the baby daughter (Ava) of one of the dead girl’s relatives, Star (Stella by birth) is abducted, almost immediately after another baby is abducted locally, but returned safely within a matter of days; the mother & missing baby are known to Nelson’s wife, Michelle, who is attending the same mother & baby classes, and she dismisses the notion that Star might have engineered this as a way of seeking attention. This is also a very emotive situation for Judy Johnson, whose own son, Michael, was abducted in a previous story (hence the aforementioned overlap), and that was the catalyst for Judy to acknowledge that she preferred Cathbad, Michael’s father, to her erstwhile husband, Darren.

To reveal any more of the plot would be to spoil it, but the original, somewhat unexpected, perpetrator is identified, although not before one of the characters is murdered, and this dénouement is not revealed until right at the end of the story. Otherwise, there is ample scope for continuance of the main characters’ lives, so as I have already said, I am very willing to read a further instalment, plus any previous, necessarily out-of-sequence unread ones I can obtain, and I can thoroughly recommend this series of stories. There are biographies for the main characters at the end of the book, which is a nice little addition, and some of the books [although not this version] also include a potted autobiography, hence the synopsised version above, which I found at the back of another story I still had in my possession. The hardback I read was published in in 2019, by Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978 1 78648 729 2; there is also a paperback, an eBook, and an audio book version.

Book Review


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The Night Hawks, by Elly Griffiths

This is the latest paperback murder mystery for the forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway character, and it was published when Coronavirus was known about, but the narrative’s start date is September 2019, so it must have been written before Covid was starting to cause real concern. There is a later story, The Locked Room, commencing in February 2020, which should have been published in February this year, but not yet in paperback; from the taster of five short chapters at the end of this book, it is clear that Coronavirus is being taken seriously. At the beginning, Ruth is still single and, after a stint at Cambridge University, back living in her beloved cottage in Norfolk with her now nine-year old daughter Kate, Ruth’s previous lover & putative husband having been gently spurned and returned to his native America. Ruth is now Head of Archaeology, superseding her former boss Phil Trent, and she has engaged a lecturer, David Brown, to work under her, but she is already starting to wonder if he was a good choice, because he seems somewhat arrogant, and she conducts a silent monologue of things she would like to say to him, but prefers to refrain from.

Instead of an ancient body, or the remains of one, the first one to be found this time is very much contemporary, by the eponymous Night Hawks, nocturnal metal detectorists, whom Ruth considers to be a nuisance: “They’re not archaeologists. They’re amateurs who charge around looking for treasure. They’ve no idea how to excavate or how to read the context. They just dive in and dig up whatever looks shiny.” David considers this elitism, however: “Detectorists are valid members of the community and these finds belong to the people.” Ruth’s professional opinion is sought by her daughter’s not-so-secret father, DCI Harry Nelson, but David Brown also invites himself along, much to Ruth’s irritation; his comments about the Night Hawks don’t endear him to her either. It appears that the Night Hawks also found something more attractive, which Nelson categorises as “a lot of old metal”, but Ruth is intrigued, and a superficial excavation reveals a broken spear head, possibly Bronze Age; then part of a skull is found, so David is happy, because he was advocating for a dig for his first year students, but Ruth’s primary concern is that the site should be protected.

At first, the contemporary body, that of a young man, is assumed to be a refugee who drowned in the course of trying to enter the country, but his identification leads the inquiry in an unexpected direction, and before long, there is a second death, so perhaps the first death was murder? Ruth is soon called in to excavate the garden of the isolated Black Dog Farm, where there has been an apparent murder/suicide, and after this, events take a distinctly dangerous turn for her… I have come to really enjoy reading the exploits of these characters, and they always seem somehow more relevant when they are set within the context of current circumstances; also, their lives evolve, they are not preserved in aspic, so they are realistic, whilst still being fictional. The paperback I read was published in 2021 by Quercus Editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-78747-784-1.

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A Dance of Cranes, by Steve Burrows

This is a bit of a curate’s egg of a book; not least because the main character, DCI Domenic Jejeune, happens to be away from his usual ‘patch’ for most of the book, albeit for a specific reason closely connected with the plot; but also because it is presented as a “birder mystery”, which seems a somewhat abstruse sort of hobby for a senior police officer, but that is, no doubt, the result of my prejudice & ignorance of the subject — there’s no earthly reason why a Detective Chief Inspector of police shouldn’t be a birder [not a twitcher, apparently]. There are several different threads running concurrently, primarily because of the DCI’s absence from Norfolk, to locate his brother Damian, who has gone missing in one of Canada’s national parks in Ontario; the absence also serves the purpose of distancing himself from his erstwhile girlfriend, Lindy Hey, who he believes is still at risk from a crazed criminal who has already tried to kill her, although he hasn’t actually elucidated that to her, so she thinks he has dropped her for no good reason; that she is aware of, anyway.

The book is also, for me, a slightly irritating mix of British & American spellings & terminology, probably because the author is Canadian, I presume; although his bio at the front doesn’t specify this, only that he now lives in Ontario. One real howler that always sets my teeth on edge is the use of “hone in”, instead of “home in”, but either the editor missed it, or was [misguidedly] happy to accept it as correct. The sections of the book in Canada & the USA, which obviously have to be allowed time to develop, do risk slowing down the plot development; but they are connected, even though they aren’t germane to the action at ‘home’, other than for keeping Jejeune removed from the assumed protagonist of the story: this thread is left to Jejeune’s trusted subordinate, DS Danny Maik to undertake and, in a parallel thread, newly promoted Sergeant Lauren Salter has her own investigation to occupy her mind & time.

I can’t honestly say that this is the most enjoyable book I have read recently, but the story hangs together, even if it is slow to develop; sometimes, it’s good just to enjoy the ride, and ignoring thoughts of the destination, until it arrives! The ending is ambiguous, but whether this a device common to these books—leaving possibilities open for subsequent stories—I can’t confirm categorically, only having read this later episode; I hope this doesn’t deter you unduly. If detective stories with a high avian content float your boat, there are five previous novels by this author you might like to investigate, all with the, presumably, correct collective noun for a specific bird in the title. The paperback version I read of this book was published by Oneworld Publications, in arrangement with Dundurn Press Limited, in 2019, ISBN 978-1-78607-577-2.

Book Review



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Launch Code, by Michael Ridpath

This novelist’s name is not one I have encountered before, but he has written eleven other novels, as well as five novels set in Iceland, during the writing of which he “fell in love” with that country: he now also publishes a blog called writinginice, from which a non-fiction book, Writing in Ice: A Crime Writer’s Guide to Iceland, has sprung. The bio on his website tells us that he was privately educated and worked first as a credit analyst, then a ‘junk bond’ trader, so it is unlikely that his experience could be categorised as the ‘school of hard knocks’, but nevertheless, he seems to have an impartial take on humanity’s character flaws: “Working in the City, I had come across some pretty dodgy characters … the shades of grey interested me.” This novel starts off as a thriller, time-shifting between what became known as the Cold War, specifically 1983-4, and the present day; it then morphs into a murder mystery, and quite a tense one at that.

Former Lieutenant William (Bill) Guth, USN, previously assistant weapons officer on the USS Alexander Hamilton, has made a home for himself and his five daughters in Norfolk, after being transferred to England by his American employer; unfortunately, his wife, Donna, died some years ago, but she still figures very strongly in his memory, and in this story, which is played out by the use of regular flashbacks. An incident occurs on board the nuclear missile carrying submarine which brings the world to the brink of nuclear war, but it was clearly averted, or else there would be no present day story to relate. As the narrative develops, details are released gradually as to what occurred on the sub, but only enough details to give the reader one version of the story, which is then changed as new information is released, of necessity in response to the death of a British researcher who is trying to discover the true extent of the danger the world faced, and how close to destruction it came.

The main character of Bill Guth is deliberately, but also cleverly, presented as being ambiguous in his motives, and for a while suspicion falls on his eldest daughter Alice, to the consternation of her loving, but increasingly concerned British husband, Toby; the security services of both countries are also in the mix, which adds another layer of intrigue to the story. I think this is a worthwhile effort, because it throws some light, albeit guesswork to some extent, on the procedures designed to prevent the accidental release of nuclear weapons, and the questionable value of them as a deterrent (all the more so, given Boris Johnson’s pig-headed determination to ill-advisedly increase the size of Britain’s nuclear ‘arsenal’), and the fairly obvious fact that the world has escaped destruction only because brave individuals on both ‘sides’ were prepared to risk their careers, and possibly also their lives, to overrule the automatic systems that were supposed to be foolproof; commendably, the Russians are portrayed as being no more belligerent, and just as fallible as the Americans, as the two quotes at the beginning of the book illustrate:

Never, perhaps, in the post-war decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence more difficult and unfavourable as in the first half of the 1980s.


Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, 1986

We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.


Robert Gates, Deputy Director of CIA and later Secretary of Defense

I will certainly look out for other books by this author, and look forward to reading them as & when I find them. This one is published in paperback by Corvus, London, 2020, ISBN 978-1-78649-701-7.