CFL double award winner Elly Griffiths had written a book a year about forensic archeologist Dr Ruth Galloway for the past 13 years. When 2020 came around, she was in a quandary – should she include the COVID-19 pandemic or leave it out altogether? In the end, Griffiths went with the former and The Locked Room is the result.
The pandemic is here in all its horrifying reality, sitting slap-bang in the middle of an engrossing mystery. It seemed a little strange at first to me, reading this book as I was sitting at home while self-isolating – a sign of the times, really – but although COVID is almost like an extra character here, it never dominates the tale.
And what a tale this is! Fans of Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson are in for a treat. The story opens with a prologue. An unnamed woman is locked in a tiny, dark room, not knowing where she is or who put her there. Who is she? Aaah, you’ll have to wait and see.
Moving on to February 2020, Ruth is at her parents’ house in Eltham, sorting through her late mother’s belongings. In a box she finds a flurry of photographs and as she flicks through they all seem pretty run of the mill. Except for one. It’s black and white, shows a row of three cottages, and has “Dawn, 1963” written on the back in her mother’s hand.
The snap gives Ruth pause for thought, because right in the middle of the cottages pictured is the house where she now lives, a place her mother always disliked. It’s a mystery – and we all know how Ruth Galloway loves a mystery. So does DCI Harry Nelson, who is at home in North Norfolk and also studying a photograph. His wife Michelle has taken their little son George to Blackpool to visit relatives and Nelson is all on his lonesome, pondering the death of a local woman, Samantha Wilson. It looks like suicide, but Nelson isn’t so sure. Then another woman is found dead, another apparent suicide – but the room where Avril Flowers was discovered was locked from the outside. Time to start digging deeper.
It wouldn’t be a Galloway book without her doing some digging too – and in The Locked Room Ruth is called to Norwich, where workmen excavating a street in the city centre have unearthed a skull, followed by the rest of the skeleton. The find is in Tombland, the ancient area around the cathedral, and isn’t too surprising as there is a medieval cemetery nearby and also rumours of a plague pit. Plague, both ancient and modern, crops up with grim regularity as the plot unfolds.
Slowly, insidiously, the pandemic makes its presence felt. There are briefings on masks and social distancing, Ruth is forced to run her lectures via Zoom and home schooling throws her and daughter Kate in a loop. Meanwhile, Michelle gets locked down in Blackpool, and as Nelson and his team drive the near-deserted streets, there are vague echoes of people clapping for heroes. Shockingly for Elly Griffiths fans, a major player in the series is struck down with the virus too.
Focusing as it does on a time when so many of us felt as if we were living in locked rooms, trapped indoors by an invisible and largely unknown foe, The Locked Room exudes a sense of claustrophobia and uncertainty which feeds into the psyche of even the most stoic of regular series cast members; unprecedented times lead to unprecedented responses and Griffiths has some surprises up her sleeve that will knock regular readers back on their heels. While the book plays on that metaphor and nods in the direction of the well known crime fiction trope of the locked-room mystery, it isn’t one as such.
It is set in dark and frightening days, but we’re also treated to some genuinely laugh out loud moments that cut through the gloom and let the humanity come shining through. It’s a neat balancing act, and one that only an author as accomplished as Elly Griffiths can pull off with such aplomb. There’s also plenty of her trademark plotting to keep us on our toes, and the lovingly rendered locations we’ve come to expect, with Tombland the star of this particular show.
All in all, The Locked Room is a sheer reading pleasure – the only trouble being, I’m not sure I can wait another 12 months before finding out what Griffiths has in store for book 15!
CFL Rating: 5 Stars