Monday, March 10, 2014

English Mystery Series by Elly Griffiths: THE OUTCAST DEAD

This is the sixth Ruth Galloway mystery from Elly Griffiths, who earned a blurb from Louise Penny ("gripping"!) and won the 2010 Mary Higgins Clark Award. And THE OUTCAST DEAD just goes to show that there are always more good mysteries ahead to read, because ... this is the first time I've heard of the author and the series, but I definitely want to collect all the earlier books and go on reading these!

In some ways, Griffiths provides us with a bit of a replacement for Elizabeth Peters, because Ruth Galloway is an archaeologist. But Griffiths takes us into modern archaeology instead, opening with a ceremony at Norwich Castle to bless the bodies in the paupers' graves, the "outcast dead," that Galloway witnesses because of her curiosity and general sadness about those long-forgotten people on the edge of society. Not far away from them is Ruth's own exciting discovery, probably the body of the long-lost Mother Hook, a criminal whose exploits are part of local child-frightening lore. Hanged in 1867 for the murder of five children, Mother Hook (she has a primitive hook prosthetic replacing one hand) is an entirely unexpected discovery, a body outside the usual burial ground, undisturbed in all these years of maneuverings at the castle.

As the discoverer, Ruth, a relatively reserved and shy person (nerd might be accurate), has fallen into the toils of her boss, who is engineering a visit from a TV crew. And it looks like Ruth will have to take a major role in front of the camera. But at the same time, she's distracted when her close friend DCI Harry Nelson tackles the death of a child nearby, followed almost immediately by two child abductions where the criminal seems to be targeting women who use day care -- that is, who allow a "Childminder" into their lives.

Griffiths has a complex community to draw us into, where children are not just delivered to a "childminder" when parents work, but parenting itself is also shared among Ruth and her friends, whose children range from infants to teens. If I'd read the previous five books, I would have followed this a bit better, but it wasn't all that hard to catch up. Griffiths is expert in revealing the depth of character -- and the ready access she provides to Galloway's emotions and impulses makes the quick plot with its unexpected twists especially intriguing.

I'm also hooked on the terrain of this one -- flat lands near the beaches of eastern England. In Ruth Galloway's eyes, her landscape is layered with the history and stories of the people who've lived there centuries ago. And as she probes the evidence around her Mother Hook discovery and the added information coming from an attractive American professor visiting the scene, she looks in new ways at the complex relationship of parent, child, babysitter, and ... baby snatcher.

A good solid mystery with a lot of character. It hits American markets tomorrow (came out in January in the UK), and deserves a warm welcome.

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