Just released this week in the US is the newest in her Ruth Galloway mystery series, featuring a forensic archaeologist who's also a single parent in a very complicated network of university politics, local police, and the remnants of England's past -- which in Ruth's case includes a significant friendship with a modern-day Druid. No fancy paranormal side effects in here, unless you count the occasional strong intuition that Ruth and her friends may experience. Instead, THE CHALK PIT provides the perfect summer read: a strong traditional mystery with powerful motives (money and power!), and heart-stirring secondary plotting among the homeless in Norwich.
This time Ruth's investigating some human bones that turned up in an old tunnel, part of an excavation for a future restaurant-and-event locale, where the money at stake pushed the agenda. Hurry up and declare the bones insignificant remains of some medieval resident (definitely not royal) and get them out of the way. Ruth's willing ... but, as she settles to discussing them with DCI Nelson, head of the Norwich police team and a mostly former flame of Ruth's, her doubts take shape:
"Anyway, it's likely that the bones are medieval or even older. There's no flesh on them and they look very clean. It's just ..."While Ruth keeps that aspect as quiet as possible, she's getting crowded by fellow academics who want to push into the underground labyrinth with her, and some have motives that worry her. Meanwhile, Nelson's team, especially DS Judy Johnson, has another reason for interest in those old tunnels that were once part of the region's chalk-mining industry: Could homeless people in the area become crime victims of someone living "underground" and kidnapping them, or worse?
"What is it, Ruth? I know there's something you're not telling me."
"It might be nothing. But one of the long bones was broken in the middle and there were cut marks on it. And the bones were so clean, almost shiny. It reminded me of something that I've read about. Pot polish."
"Pot polish? Sounds like something my granny would do."
"I doubt it. It's when bones are boiled soon after death. The polish comes from the contact with a roughly made cooking vessel."
"Jesus wept." Nelson chokes on his last crumb of cake. "Are you saying these bones were in a cooking pot?"
Griffiths keeps the twists spinning, enlivened by Ruth Galloway's confused "love life" that tugs her in as many directions as her work does. Lively storytelling, quick surprises, and a lot at stake make the book a very good vacation from ordinary daily life -- and from the lawnmower and garden!
This is the ninth in the series, and it lacks the tang of some of the earlier titles when Ruth's Druid friend Cathbad saw more action. There's no need to read the others first -- Griffiths is a pro in terms of setting the scene in a sequel by now -- but for the best enjoyment, I'd recommend splurging for the summer reading pile and picking up the earlier titles in softcover (The Crossing Places, The Janus Stone, The House at Sea's End, A Room Full of Bones, A Dying Fall, The Outcast Dead, The Ghost Fields, The Woman in Blue). FYI, the earlier titles veer a bit more toward the dark and dangerous side than THE CHALK PIT does. (It's all about taste, isn't it?)
Great that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has brought this series across the Atlantic.
PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.