Sunday, May 22, 2016

Prime British Crime Fiction from Elly Griffiths: THE WOMAN IN BLUE, Ruth Galloway #8

The first book in the Ruth Galloway crime fiction series, The Crossing Places, won the Mary Higgins Clark award for 2011 -- and of course, the award took place some time after the book hit the stores. Now in 2016, author Elly Griffiths presents the eighth in the impressive sequence: THE WOMAN IN BLUE.

This series features forensic anthropologist Ruth Galloway, a professional at university level who still has to fight for her career, against the sexist and crass assumptions of people like her boss. Single parenting in a community that's gradually becoming aware of her daughter's father -- married and unavailable -- Ruth juggles child care and teaching and investigation, in a jumble that feels all too familiar for modern life: nothing's easy, there's never enough time, and all of it matters intensely.

As THE WOMAN IN BLUE opens, one of the most appealing of Ruth's friends, Cathbad, himself a parent and also a modern-day British druid, witnesses a "woman in blue" (how can I not think of T. S. Eliot's vision in blue, "in Mary's color") standing in an ancient Christian cemetery. "As Cathbad approaches, she looks at him, and her face, illuminated by something stronger than natural light, seems at once so beautiful and sad that Cathbad crosses himself. 'Can I help you?' he calls. His voice echoes against stone and darkness."

It's understandable that Cathbad wonders whether he's seen a real person, or a vision, even if that would belong to a faith very different from his own. But as Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson quickly discovers, along with the young woman's corpse, she's been a patient at an upscale drug rehab facility nearby. The blue "cloak" is a dressing gown, even if it does look -- to Nelson's usually unimaginative eye -- like a druid's down attire.

Ruth Galloway quickly becomes part of the investigation: partly because Nelson and his team count on her for her expertise (although usually for Iron Age skeletons!), and mostly because an old friend from archaeology school is in town for a conference of woman Anglican priests heading toward higher positions in the church hierarchy. When Hilary Smithson reconnects with Ruth, there's a powerful ulterior motive for getting back in touch: threats against her life, which Hilary hopes that Ruth can help assess, based on all the modern-day police connections that Ruth's clearly experienced in the past few (very public) years.
"The thing is," says Hilary again, cubing the cubes, "there are some people who just don't like the idea of woman priests."

Ruth knows. She's read about it in the Guardian. Though, to be honest, she usually skips those articles on the way to the TV listings.

"Most women priests get abuse of some kind, people saying things, refusing to come to their services. When I first started getting the letters I didn't think anything of it. A rite of passage ... Then, at the end of last year, the tone seemed to change, to become nastier, more sinister. But what worried me most were the references to archaeology ... because it was specific to me. ... He must have found out that I was coming to this conference."
Ruth's dubious about her ability to help -- but soon the twists of events threaten her carefully balanced life, including her relationship with her daughter's father, and when her own slant on the past comes into play (archaeology matters!), she moves several steps ahead of the police in grasping the motive for the spate of deaths of blond young women like the one "in blue."

Elly Griffiths spins a tight, taut, and neatly twisted crime plot where the significant characters -- Ruth, Nelson, Cathbad -- must learn something deeper about themselves and their part of England in order to solve the crimes and stop their escalation. Each time I read another in the Ruth Galloway series, I marvel at how few people know these. It's something about the English source of the books, of course ... THE WOMAN IN BLUE was release on the other side of the Atlantic in February, reaching us quietly in May through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. If I could summon up a change in the way these books arrive here, I'd send Griffiths on a major tour, where she could reveal her own secret life (her name's not really Griffiths! -- see her website for more) and connect with the smart savvy readers who appreciate her books so much. (I reviewed numbers 6 and 7 here.)

But then again, that would get in the way of writing Ruth Galloway investigation number 9 -- and I want more of these, for a very satisfying shelf of mysteries that I re-read with pleasure. Now that I think of it, maybe that's how I'll celebrate the start of official summer in a few weeks: by returning to the start of the series and reading them all again. Yes!

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