Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist in a Norfolk University. She specialises in analysing the bones of ancient people, uncovered during archaeological digs. When she hears of the tragic death of an old friend from student days, she is saddened, but not heartbroken, as they had not seen each other for many years. What does chill her blood, however, is that when she picks up her post the next day, she finds a letter – from the dead man. Dan Golding has made an incredible discovery on the site of a post-Roman temple in Lancashire. It is a find that will turn British history on its head. But he is worried. He feels threatened, and has written to Ruth asking for her help.
Ruth leaves her isolated home on the salt marshes of the North Norfolk coast and travels north to literally pick the bones out of the death of Dan Golding. Unwittingly, she is helped by King’s Lynn CID boss Harry Nelson. Her eccentric friend Cathbod – a cloak-wearing druid who sees signs and portents everywhere he looks – goes with her and despite his repeated utterances about spiritual connections, proves to be a more than handy babysitter for Ruth’s young daughter.
In Lancashire, Ruth discovers an apology for a university housed in a former cotton mill. Its head of history, Golding’s erstwhile boss, is out of his depth, deeply in debt, and presiding over a potential train wreck for the former technical college. The tawdry charms of Blackpool, and the sinister ambience of Pendle Hill feature strongly in the novel, and there is a palpable sense of vulnerability about Ruth, despite her determination to be a go-it-alone single mum.
The complex personal lives of the characters do tend to strain credibility. Everyone seems to be having children by someone other than their husband or partner. Maybe this does happen all the time, and perhaps I have led a sheltered life. Also, as loveable as Ruth’s little daughter might be, hardly a page goes by without reference to her. The plotting of this book, however, is clever and sprung with surprises. There are a couple of well-worked revelations in the final pages which I didn’t see coming.
This is not a corpse-strewn roller coaster of mindless violence, urban deprivation and dramatic confrontations. Instead the story meanders gently through the rich and varied English landscape, hinting at a dark and frequently violent past. Griffiths does not labour the point with her descriptions of the topography, but she subtly conveys a sense of menace by hinting at dark deeds from the past which have indelibly stained the land. The characters are believable, acutely observed, and resolutely refuse to hold poses. They are, by and large, decent human beings who, while not without flaws, act and sound completely real. The writing is shot through with intelligence, ironic humour and some lovely cultural references. Ruth herself is refreshingly ordinary. She is over-40, overweight, but what’s not to love about a character who can, at one point, compare herself to Ena Sharples?
CFL Rating: 4 Stars