The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths
Recently, I met the crime writer Elly Griffiths, who is an awesome person. I was guest-speaking on a creative writing programme she runs at Cambridge, and to my surprise and delight she joined in with the writing exercises I set. Because I was going to meet this successful author, I thought it might be a good idea to get to know her books, so I bought one and read it.
The Crossing Places (2009) introduces Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist based at the (fictional) University of North Norfolk, which is rather in the shadow of UEA. As an academic originally from Norfolk, I was especially keen to read a Galloway mystery, and made the sensible decision to start with the first. And I fell in love with Ruth from the very first chapter. She is likeable, awkward, shy, and she keeps cats. She is, in short, believable and sympathetic. There’s nothing of the clichéd detective about Ruth, who occupies a marshy hinterland between the amateur and the professional: after all, she is a bone specialist, legitimately working with the police, but she also finds herself leading them in their investigations. Over the course of the case, she grows increasingly close to the unrefined and slightly chippy Detective Inspector Harry Nelson (Norfolk, Nelson, see what Griffiths did there?).
The plot: Ruth is summoned by the police when they discover human bones on a saltmarsh in remote Norfolk. Arriving at the scene, she determines that the bones are 2,000 years old. They are not, as DI Harry Nelson feared, the bones of a young girl who went missing ten years ago. And that is that. Until another girl goes missing. Nelson asks Ruth to look, additionally, at some anonymous letters the police have received, taunting the police with cryptic literary and classical clues as to the locations of the girls. Before long, Ruth finds herself tragically embroiled in the investigation and in danger of death …
I love that, over the course of the narrative, Ruth finds herself. She starts out keeping herself to herself, but by the end she is comfortable with her role in the world, and open to the company of friends. When she has a breakdown, half-way through, about how she is perceived – ‘Only concerned with bones, a dull specialisation, useful but ultimately marginal. She is not a heroine type […], she does not belong centre-stage’ – every reader is on her side and rooting for her.
My only problem with this novel is the tense. It’s told in the present tense, but I am 99% sure the author must have written it in the past tense, been advised that crime thrillers happen in the present tense, and edited accordingly. As a result, we have sentences that don’t sit quite right, especially when someone is remembering something (‘She had known what she would find’, which works with a ‘she remembered’ sentence but not with a ‘she remembers’ sentence, if that makes sense). I flicked through some of the later novels in the series, and none of them seems to have this problem. It does seem to be a common theme in a lot of debut crime novels of the last ten years.
The pace is consistent and gripping. When the murderer is revealed, it isn’t really a surprise so much as a slow unravelling of the inevitable. I was so into the book by the end that, as I frantically turned the pages of the final showdown on the saltmarsh, when my phone went off, I screamed at it to shut up. I am certainly looking forward to reading the rest of the series, and I will do so in order. I can’t wait to see how Ruth’s and Harry’s realistic dynamic develops.