As far as I am concerned there are few pleasures greater than a new novel from Elly Griffiths in her series featuring forensic archeologist, Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson. When the publishers are kind enough to send me a review copy and I get the chance to read it over Christmas, then my cup runneth over. And, a religious metaphor is more than apt in the case of the Griffiths’ latest offering, The Woman in Blue, which opens with Cathbad, cat-sitting in Walsingham, convinced that he has had a vision of the Virgin Mary walking through the local graveyard.
Now, I am well aware that if you haven’t read any of these novels you are going to find that statement puzzling. If I add that Cathbad is a druid you might begin to wonder even more. The back story to this series isn’t one that you can sum up in a few sentences. All I can suggest is that for the moment you just ride with it and then, when you’ve read this review, give yourself the inestimable pleasure of starting at the beginning and reading all eight books straight through. You won’t regret it.
In fact, it isn’t the Virgin Mary that Cathbad has seen but a flesh and blood young woman who will be found dead the following morning, setting off a hunt for the murderer that will continue throughout the period of Lent and culminate in the Passion Play celebrations on Good Friday. Chloe Jenkins, a young model, is a resident at The Sanctuary, a private hospital specialising in drug rehabilitation, and suspicion for what appears to be her motiveless murder falls initially on another of the hospital patients. However, the evidence is not entirely convincing and Nelson’s instincts tell him that he probably hasn’t got the right man. Furthermore, there is also the question of who it is that is writing threatening letters to a friend of Ruth’s, Hilary Smithson, once also an archaeologist but now a priest attending a course in Walsingham on preparing for Episcopacy. The letter writer has a problem with women becoming priests, let alone bishops. Is it possible that they and the murderer are one and the same? When a second body is found and it turns out to be one of the other women priests on the course, the probability seems more likely.
Well, it may not have been the Virgin Mary that Cathbad saw but the question of motherhood and of who has a claim on a mother figure is central to the novel. It is not only at the heart of the murder investigation but is also influential in respect of the motive behind the threatening letters, whose writer sees women as having a prescribed role in the Christian life, one that centres primarily on the vocation of motherhood. Griffiths has previously used Ruth’s position as a professional, working, single mother to tackle issues of gender equality. Here she takes that further and explores the question of what happens when a woman asserts a right to a vocation that has previously been the sole patrimony of men and, in so doing, threatens what they have seen as their right to power.
However, being Griffiths, she addresses what could be controversial subjects with a wit that undercuts any sense of real animosity. One of the most notable features of this series is the wry humour of the third person narrator, who, reporting events in a crisp present tense, sees all, knows all and casts an ironic eye over all proceedings: a narrator who has a greater claim to omniscience than even Nelson’s Catholic mother. And as Nelson’s conscience knows, that is saying something. I could fill pages with examples of the way in which this narrator captures a character or a situation with only a few telling words but to give you a taste I’ll offer just a couple of examples.
Here is Nelson’s Sergeant, Dave Clough, a character whose basic goodness we have steadily learnt to appreciate but who, truth to tell, still has his moments, bemoaning the absence of his co-worker, Judy.
‘She’ll probably bring the baby with her and insist on breastfeeding all over the office.’
That’s the thing about Clough, thinks Ruth, as she says goodbye and follows the signs to the Anglican shrine. Just when he’s being human, he says something that reminds you what a Neanderthal he can be. Except that Neanderthals probably had a more enlightened attitude towards breastfeeding.
Bless him, he tries, he really does try.
And then, just to be evenhanded on the gender front, here is Nelson handing out assignments to a rather over zealous young female detective.
He turns to Tanya, who sits up even straighter. ‘Chloe was doing an online course. Something to do with angels. Can you follow it up? Find out a bit more about it?’
‘Yes, boss.’ Tanya sounds less than enthusiastic to be given the angel brief. Nelson decides to cheer her up. ‘But first you can go to Walsingham and co-ordinate the scene-of-the-crime search. They’re concentrating on the area where Chloe’s body was found’.
Tanya brightens immediately. Co-ordinating is almost as good as being in charge.
Tanya is another one who means well, but who really does have to learn to take herself less seriously.
As a crime writer, Griffiths sits in a sort of middle ground between the cozy and the streetwise. There is nothing cosy about the murders that Nelson investigates, but this sense of irony that pervades the novels consistently serves to undercut the worst of the horrors. However, like any good writer of detective fiction she always has something to say about the complexity of the human condition and this very enjoyable novel is no exception.
(With thanks to Quercus who made this available for review.)