Reviewed by Harriet
Ruth Galloway’s five-year-old daughter Kate is off to her first day at school.
‘Say goodbye to Daddy’, says Ruth.
‘Bye, sweetheart’. Nelson takes a last picture of Kate waving through the car window. Then he puts the camera away and goes home to have breakfast with his wife.
Why do I love Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels so much? She’s published one a year since 2009 and I’ve read every one of them with the greatest of pleasure. Of course there’s the fact that I love a good mystery, and definitely prefer them without too much violence and gore. And these are, partly at least, police procedurals, probably my favourite among the varied genres of the crime novel. I always find the archaeological aspects interesting, especially when they are mixed with ancient myth and folklore. And I empathise a good deal with the pressures Ruth has to deal with in juggling her academic job with caring for her daughter. The setting, a remote coastal area in Norfolk, is very appealing. But, let’s face it, it’s the characters and their relationships which play a large part in the charm and interest of these novels.
So – if you’ve never read any of this series, here are the salient facts. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist, who teaches at the (fictional) University of North Norfolk. Because of her expertise in studying old bones, she has been frequently called on by the local police department to assess newly discovered skeletal remains. The first time this happened, in Crossing Places, she found herself working with DCI Harry Nelson. Although in many ways the two of them could not be more different, and although Nelson is a happily married family man, something drew them together and after an unexpected but enjoyable night together, Ruth found herself pregnant. She decided to keep the baby and over the subsequent years has derived huge pleasure from Kate, with whose upbringing Nelson has managed to be somewhat involved, something his wife has rather reluctantly come to terms with. Ruth is, it’s fair to say, somewhat conflicted about it all. She would never dream of rocking the boat of Nelson’s marriage, but the other relationships she gets into always founder because she can’t shake off her feelings for him, though this is something she doesn’t want to admit to herself.
The Ghost Fields starts in a summer heatwave. As the novel begins, a construction crew has just unearthed a macabre find – a WW2 plane, buried in the middle of a field, with the body of the pilot still inside. The field has been recently sold to a developer by the Blackstock family, who originally owned it, and after Ruth has sent the bones off for DNA testing, the dead man is identified as Fred Blackstock, who had been reported as killed at sea. The investigation brings both Ruth and Nelson and his team into close contact with the remaining Blackstocks, who live in a once grand, now crumbling home – dotty grandfather Old George, his rather feeble son Young George, whose wife Sally has plans to turn Blackstock Hall into a B&B, young Chaz, a pig farmer, and beautiful Cassie, an actress. Everything is made more complicated by the fact that an American TV company is making a documentary in the area, focusing on the so-called Ghost Fields, deserted wartime airforce bases, one of which is now occupied by Chaz’s pig farm. What’s more, the front man of the film is Frank, an American academic who is extremely keen on Ruth. When more bones – fresh ones this time – turn up on the pig farm, the plot thickens considerably.
Ruth has proved to be an extremely popular character with readers, and it’s easy to see why. A strong woman, good at her job, highly intelligent and with a delightfully wry sense of humour, she worries about her looks and her weight – needlessly, really, as she is obviously very attractive to men. Having a child, especially as a lone parent, was never on the agenda, but she adores Kate, who is turning out to be a strong-minded and bright little girl who has had no problems, so far anyway, in accepting that her beloved Daddy lives somewhere else with another family. Nelson, meanwhile, watches over his little daughter with an eagle eye, sometimes annoying Ruth with his fussiness and anxieties about her upbringing. Being joint parents but never having lived together is a situation that could cause strain but in the event seems to have worked out remarkably well. Less easy, perhaps, is the continuing, never acted upon or even acknowledged, connection between Ruth and Nelson. Then of course there are the supporting characters – Cathbad the druid, his policewoman partner Judy, the other members of Nelson’s team, and not forgetting Nelson’s beautiful wife Michelle, who we see in an unexpected light in this novel.
Elly Griffiths handles all this brilliantly, weaving real historical and social facts into a largely fictional narrative. In this novel, family DNA and family inter-relationships are explored to great effect, and the weather has an important role too, with the final section taking place in a rain-soaked December in which Ruth finds herself trapped in a flooded and cut-off Blackstock Hall in the company of…never mind who. That’s enough of the plot. No need to tell you that I really enjoyed this – long may the series run and run.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Elly Griffiths, The Ghost Fields (Quercus: London, 2015). 9781848663305, 370pp., hardback.
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