Monday, May 18, 2015

Forensic Archaeology and World War II Betrayal, in THE GHOST FIELDS, by Elly Griffiths (Ruth Galloway #7)

US cover
The long shadows of old crimes are familiar phenomena for Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist whose home turf is Norfolk, England: rich with dark history, which Ruth has already found dangerous to her career and her life in the previous six books in Elly Griffiths's strong and exciting series. In THE GHOST FIELDS, a body from the Second World War emerges where it shouldn't be -- in a buried airplane (the wrong kind!) in a field where a development is scheduled for construction. And when Ruth begins to probe the life and death of the quickly identified corpse, Fred Blackstock, threats from the locally significant Blackstock family multiply. But the dangers, though real, are amorphous and the killer or killers are hard to identify, in the midst of a tightly closed family full of secrets.

Griffiths braids far more tension into the mystery, through the stresses Ruth and her friends undergo in the meantime. Fans of the series already know the complicated situation Ruth's in, as a (mostly) single parent raising a precocious daughter whose father keeps stepping back into the picture; as an academic struggling against a thoughtless and periodically malicious department head; and as an undecided lover of an American whose visits to the region destabilize her heart, her routines, her hopes.

Then there is the druid component: Ruth's close friend Cathbad "just knows things" and sometimes they are relevant to untimely deaths.  Not to mention the advent of DNA testing to the region -- suddenly tying together people and differentiating others, causing shocks to family structures, old beliefs, and the current policing force where Ruth's on call.

A large part of the pleasure of this series is Ruth herself, sharp and knowledgeable in her field, but quickly insecure in crowds and among people who don't seem quite sane. With the entire Blackstock family meeting that criterion, one way or another, Ruth's in trouble until she can resolve the journey of Fred Blackstock's corpse. Griffiths alternates points of view, and when we're "inside" Ruth, we're on an all-too-human roller-coaster of determination, discovery, and dismay.
Ruth watches as Fred's coffin is lowered into the grave. It's a moment that never ceases to shock, no matter how long ago the death. The crowd begins to disperse and, conspicuous amongst the sea of black, she sees Cathbad and Hazel, both wearing purple cloaks, standing to one side of the grave. The TV cameraman is filming them surreptitiously. And there's Nelson, accompanied by Tim Heathfield and Clough, moving forward to talk to Sally Blackstock. The cameraman, who has, up until now, been the soul of discretion, allows himself a few shots of the grave and of Nell Blackstock walking away, clutching the folded flag to her chest.

Ruth stays back. She doesn't much want to talk to the TV people or to the family. She is still wondering whether to attend the 'celebration' at Blackstock Hall. ... When she thinks of the scene last night, she is struck by a slight but real jolt of fear. She remembers Old George howling in the pets' burial ground and standing at the head of the table proposing a toast.
Madness, menace, and the constant mayhem that defines managing a challenging career and parenting -- that's what Ruth is in for, and THE GHOST FIELDS (a term for the old airfields in the region) provides suspense and intrigue and quick, sharp jabs of dry British humor as well.

Elly Griffiths is on a good roll here, tossing Ruth's often chaotic life with generous helpings of crime, sleuthing, and suspense. It's a great series -- halfway between amateur sleuth and professional investigator -- and although there are advantages to reading all the books in order (start with The Crossing Places), THE GHOST FIELDS is very readable on its own. Of course, it's likely that if you read this one without the others, you'll soon be sleuthing the shop and online shelves, looking for the other six. But there's nothing wrong with that adventure! At least you are not going to have to face dinner with the Blackstocks on your own.

[PS: Published in Great Britain by Quercus; brought across "the Pond" by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And released for publication in the United States on May 19, 2015.]

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