Written by Elly Griffiths — Walsingham, deep in rural Norfolk, is a curious place. In Jim Kelly’s Death on Demand, for instance, its religious history attracts both serious Christian pilgrims and obscure extremists. Elly Griffiths uses this unusual setting as well, in her new novel The Woman in Blue.
A young woman called Chloe Jenkins is found dead near an ancient burial ground, and it doesn’t take the police long to discover that she was not in Walsingham for the good of her soul. Rather, she was a guest at a local rehab clinic.
Ruth Galloway is an archaeologist and lecturer. She lives out in the Norfolk marshes, somewhere between land and sea and – some might say – heaven and hell. She has a unique connection to crime in her neck of the woods because she was once the lover of King’s Lynn copper, DCI Harry Nelson. And, more to the point, she has a daughter to prove it.
As Nelson and his lads (one of whom has had an affair with his wife) try to work out who could have had a motive for murdering Chloe Jenkins, Ruth starts having lunch with a group of Anglican women priests. She is an atheist, and these priests believe women should be allowed to become bishops. To some, that’s a very controversial position. They are in Norfolk for Walsingham’s Passiontide events.
Elly Griffiths understands the peculiar tensions which exist between various factions within the Church of England, and makes us well aware of how each set of cheerleaders claims both the past – and the truth – exclusively for their own. It soon becomes clear to Ruth how passionately her new friends believe in their vocation, but then one of them is found murdered, and another reveals that she has been receiving hate mail. Ruth is faced with the awful possibility that a member of one church faction might be motivated enough to kill someone whose ideas conflict with their own. But why did the apparently godless Chloe Jenkins die?
The killer is eventually caught, but not before a dramatic denouement set against the unlikely backdrop of Walsingham’s annual Easter Passion Play. Griffiths doesn’t resist the opportunity for some gentle mockery as Nelson’s officers disguise themselves in biblical robes – with the obligatory tea-towels – in order to prevent the killer from striking again. The comedy acts as a harmony to the melody of Ruth’s own scepticism, but the fun suddenly turns serious when the police finally realise the identities of both the murderer and the next intended victim.
The oddities of the past are never far away in Ruth Galloway mysteries, and the title of this book is certainly appropriate. The Walsingham murders may be connected to the depiction of the Madonna as an Anglo-Saxon blonde in a blue gown. We also learn that some believers – both past and present – concern themselves with the unlikely controversy about whether the infant Jesus was breast-fed!
The Woman in Blue is a totally delightful read. It is understated where some writers might have laid things on too thickly, and it is subtle where lesser authors might have opted for a broad brush dipped in a primary colour. Aside of the social and religious nuances, Griffiths has written an excellent murder mystery, peopled with credible characters, and enhanced by a masterly depiction of landscape, history and atmosphere. The delicate and conflicted personal relationships between Ruth Galloway, Harry Nelson and the other members of the ménage makes an interesting counterpoint to the main theme. Griffiths has that rare ability to write simple and unaffected prose which has a powerful impact, and her work is proof that it is often the lightest of touches which pierces the deepest.
The Woman in Blue is released 4 February. We featured Elly Griffiths in our guide to East Anglia, part of our Gazetteer of British Crime Fiction.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars