Friday, 7 February 2014

The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths

published 2014








[Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway has been interviewed for a TV history programme]

After the first nerves, it hadn’t been so terrible after all. She’d had nightmares about being struck completely dumb in front of the cameras but, in the event, she had just imagined that she was talking to a room full of students and the words had come quite easily. She wonders what she looks like though. Dani had told her to dress casually so she’s wearing linen trousers and a loose blue shirt. Corinna, on the other hand, is in a tight red dress and high heels. A runner brings Ruth coffee and she drinks it gratefully. She feels quite important for a moment. She can see Phil watching her and a flash of red hair which shows that Shona has joined her partner. But who’s that next to Shona? Ruth looks again. There’s no disguising the breadth of those shoulders, the thick greying hair, the scowl. Christ, it’s Nelson.


observations: I love these books, I love Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeogist, and I love Harry Nelson – the best fictional policeman of them all. This latest one, just published, is set back in Ruth’s home county of Norfolk, after a visit to Lancashire for last year’s Dying Fall. It concerns missing children and disappearing babies – a subject that can be difficult to read about. Griffiths balances the story exceptionally well: this is dark matter, and sometimes hard to contemplate, but she gets the balance exactly right. I am very squeamish on these matters (like most mothers) but can still whole-heartedly recommend the book. It has an unusual plot and structure – I might have wondered where it was going at one point, but I have complete faith in Griffiths, and that was justified. There is, as always, a strand concerning Ruth’s job: in this case an investigation into a Victorian case of baby-farming, which is being turned into a TV history programme. The use of clothes in the books is exemplary – in this one the TV filming brings out some Indiana Jones outfits, and there’s a contrast between Ruth - who never feels she quite gets her clothes right, but is trying to look her best for the programme – and others, as above, who turn up in miniskirts and tight dresses.

Her fans don’t read about Ruth just for the plots – as I said when talking about a Xmas-y short story, we love the array of regular characters and their stories and personalities as they develop over the series, and we also love the jokes – these books are so clever and funny in a quiet observant way. Griffiths is also adroit in the way she does various points of view, while never losing the centrality of Ruth to the story.

Talking about an exhumed skeleton, Ruth says ‘Christian burials are usually west to east, head to the west, feet to the east’, which is why the John McGahern book is called That They May Face the Rising Sun.

The picture shows Norwegian archeologist Anne Stine Moe Ingstad (1918-1997) who discovered the remains of a Norse settlement in Newfoundland: she is examining “a fire pit at the site of what is believed to be a Norse house dating from about A.D. 1000". This sounds so much like something Ruth might be doing that I hope Elly Griffiths will feel it’s a reasonable if impressionistic representation.

12 comments:

  1. Hmm...it does sound a good series, one which I have managed to ignore thus far, embargo or not. I'm interested in the setting as we had a lot of family holidays in Norfolk when the kids were a lot younger. Perhaps it wouldn't hurt for me to try the 1st - Lord knows when!

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    1. There is a great sense of place in the books, so that might be nostalgic for you... but I hesitate to encourage you to break the embargo!

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    2. Embargo.........I vaguely recall mentioning one of them....

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    3. Yeah, you might think you can quietly drop it, but TracyK and Margot and I are watching you....

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  2. Moira - Oh, I love this series too!! And I couldn't agree more on how well Griffiths gets the balance between dark and light for best effect. I do like the characters in the novels, but the setting is so powerful too. So glad to see you highlighting part of this series! :-)

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    1. I think this series has a lot of serious fans, including you and me. I think we all like that they are proper crime books, but with a lighter side and very real characters...

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  3. Moira: Having been in media scrums both as a sports journalist and being interviewed as a lawyer there is a sense of disorientation from the lights of the camera. I have found it is less important what is worn than having clothing such as a tie in the right place or viewers are distracted from what is said by your appearance. If I know I am to be interviewed I ask someone to make sure I look right before the cameras are turned on.

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    1. And we know from a previous entry and comment that you have a dashing taste in ties Bill! Your advice is very sound....

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  4. I am way behind on this series... as in, I haven't even started it yet. My husband has three of them and has read two, and really likes them also. Which surprises me. Although I would guess he reads the Bill Pronzini Nameless series as much for the characters as the mystery plot.

    Anyway, another series I plan to start this year.

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    1. Really do recommend this series Tracy, I'm sure you will enjoy.

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  5. Have only peeped at your review and I want to read this. I'm so looking forward to it.

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