Written by Elly Griffiths — The Outcast Dead is another outing for the forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway. Here, she has just excavated a body from the grounds of Norwich Castle, a forbidding edifice once used as a prison. The remains appear to be those of the infamous Victorian murderess Jemima Green. Green was nicknamed Mother Hook for her claw-like hand, and was hanged in 1867 for the murders of five children in her care. But was Mother Hook actually guilty?
Meanwhile, Galloway’s former lover, DCI Harry Nelson, finds himself immersed in the case of three infant deaths. He’s convinced that their mother is responsible, putting him at odds with other members of his investigative team. Then baby Michael goes missing – the child of DS Judy Johnson. Galloway’s historical case and Nelson’s investigations into both the suspicious deaths, and the abduction of Johnson’s baby, all deal with children and they draw the pair together again.
The clever interweaving of the three storylines creates an ebb and flow. The abductor’s motivations aren’t so well defined and seem fairly unbelievable, but the historical thread through Galloway’s forensic investigation is stronger. Although largely reliant on Griffiths’ creativity, the atmosphere and sense of history are more believable than the criminal investigations. She has a knack for bringing history to life, stimulating your interest, which makes for a highly enjoyable way of absorbing history.
Despite the weaknesses of the main plot, Griffiths excels with her characterisation. Ruth Galloway is marvellous, and in this book becomes a reluctant TV star, being filmed in a pseudo Time Team special about the discovery of Mother Hook. It gives the author the opportunity to flesh out her creation further. The central appeal of Galloway is her true ordinariness and sense of insecurity, that her dedication and professionalism in her day job conceals. This is particularly relevant in her role as a mother and in her unique brand of parenting. She decries the perfect Mary Poppins as psychotic, and teaches her young daughter Kate the lyrics of Springsteen rather than more traditional sing-a-long rhymes. Her insecurity regarding her physical appearance, her behaviour in social situations, and the continuing uncertainty over her relationship with Nelson add layers of familiarity that female readers in particular will enjoy.
The scope afforded to the character of DS Judy Johnson is also enjoyable. Like Galloway she has a very strong professional and unflappable persona in the security of her day job. However she is emotionally undone, not only by the abduction of her child, but by her attachment to the new age druid Cathbad. The abduction of her child does seem like a forced plot device, but it brings Cathbad into the fray as the boy’s real father, which has a knock-on effect in Judy’s relationship with her husband. Cathbad is always a delight, with his bond to the natural and mystical elements of the world that unsettle and confound most.
Although a little more unbalanced in her plotting with only loose links between the three plotlines, The Outcast Dead is saved overall by the archaeological detail and the unsettling tale of Mother Hook. With pitch perfect characterisation and an underlying warmth and humour to the whole book, it’s a satisfying addition to the series so far.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars