The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths

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Reviewed by Harriet Devine

I’ve been a fan of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series since the first novel, Crossing Places, appeared in 2009. The Outcast Dead is the sixth in the series, and I’m happy to say that it pleased me just as much as the other five. Ruth and her friends are all back, in fine form, and as usual, the past meets the present as she puts her archaeological skills to work on a discovery of bones dating from the middle of the nineteenth century while her friend and erstwhile lover DCI Nelson leads his police team in the investigation of three suspicious infant deaths. Needless to say, the two investigations overlap in surprising ways, as do the lives of Ruth and Nelson.

The Outcast Dead is a novel about childminding, and all that that implies. This is something of immense relevance to Ruth, who loves her job as a busy academic but feels all the guilt common to working mothers for having to leave four-year-old Kate with a childminder. So, her recent discovery of the skeleton of Jemima Green, known as Mother Hook, a Victorian ‘baby farmer’ who was hanged for supposedly killing several of the infants entrusted to her care, seems particularly interesting. Nelson, meanwhile, is looking into the case of Liz Donaldson, whose third baby has recently died, all three apparently from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Genetic disability has been suggested, but Nelson thinks Liz may have been responsible. Then there’s young Justine Thomas, who used to babysit for the Donaldsons and now works as a nanny for a wealthy Norwich family, one of whose children is suddenly snatched from the back garden, and then just as suddenly returned unharmed. And there’s Judy, one of Nelson’s colleagues and an expert in family relations, who is wrestling with the demands of her career and those of her one-year-old son.

Anyone with an interest in history will enjoy Ruth’s investigations into the background of Jemima Green, with the added bonus that she is working alongside Frank, the American George Clooney lookalike academic, who believes in Jemima’s innocence and clearly fancies Ruth into the bargain. One of the most appealing things about this series is the way Ruth, despite her ongoing anxieties about her weight, is obviously extremely attractive to men. In fact, Ruth is a terrific character in many ways. Having been brought up by fiercely evangelical Christian parents, she has long ago rejected religion and all its trappings, but there are moments when she is tempted to believe in something or other, despite her determination not to.

Ruth’s beliefs, and those of Nelson and his colleagues, are constantly being strained to the limits by their friend Cathbad, a Druid and a mystic. Fond of arcane ceremonies and given to gnomic pronouncements, both of which tend to make Ruth wince, he nevertheless appears to have some genuine powers of intuition. He also has a strong psychic connection with the sceptical Nelson, which enabled him to save his friend’s life in a previous novel. Cathbad disappeared to Lancashire in the last novel, hoping to help Judy, the love of his life and the mother of his child, to come to terms with her new marriage to her childhood sweetheart. Fortunately, he returns, complete with swirling purple cloak, in time to bring some much-needed comfort and support when things are looking very bad for her and her family.

Of course, for anyone who has followed these novels through the whole series, it’s these ongoing relationships that supply a good helping of added interest. Above all, the complicated situation between Ruth and Nelson continues to be fascinating. Nelson is happily married to the almost impossibly beautiful Michelle and adores his two grown up daughters, but the birth of Kate, the product of a one-night stand with Ruth, has confused him deeply. He adores Kate and wants to be part of her life, and Michelle is rather unwillingly allowing this to happen, but in addition he finds himself wondering from time to time what life with Ruth would be like. As for Ruth, despite the attempts she makes to form new relationships with the attractive men who regularly approach her, she cannot wholly suppress her feelings for Nelson, despite the fact that she knows they have nothing in common. Great stuff.

Elly Griffiths has written a new stand-alone novel, The Zig Zag Girl, which will be published by Quercus in November this year. I shall await this eagerly, but I do hope we haven’t seen the last of Ruth Galloway.

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Elly Griffiths, The Outcast Dead (Quercus, 2014), 400 pages.

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