At some point in 2009 someone must have recommended that I read Elly Griffiths’ first novel, The Crossing Place. Perhaps I read about it on a blog, maybe it was a newspaper review, it may even have been word of mouth. However that first meeting with forensic archeologist, Ruth Galloway, came about, from the moment I read the opening words I was completely sold. Why? Because of a narrative voice which is surely unique. Ms Griffiths could have been writing a shopping list and I would have gone on reading just to spend longer in the company of the quirky third person present tense form of story telling which means however harrowing the events that are being described the reader is always distanced slightly by the unexpected asides of a narrator who doesn’t mind admitting they see life in a less than orthodox way.
And the events in The Outcast Dead, the sixth full-length outing for Ruth and Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, are often very harrowing indeed because the primary concern in this novel is the death and disappearance of small children. From the opening question as to whether or not Liz Donaldson is guilty of killing at least the youngest of her three sons, through the abduction of two toddlers and the link with Ruth’s excavation of the body of a Victorian woman hung for the murder of a child she was minding, the distress of the weakest and most vulnerable in society is never far away. Neither are we allowed to forget the anguish of the parents of these children, most especially as we watch the least emotional member of Nelson’s team disintegrate before our eyes when her young son vanishes. We have, of course, been here before in the last of Griffiths’ novels, A Dying Fall, when it was Ruth’s daughter, Kate, who was abducted, but somehow this novel works the theme more convincingly, perhaps because the various elements of the story – the police investigation, the excavation and what is happening in Ruth’s private life – all come together to support the same concern.
The storyline will also speak to many of its readers because of what it has to say about the issues that face the working mother. Kate certainly doesn’t seem to suffer from Ruth’s return to the university, indeed Ruth’s only concern is that her daughter will love the childminder more than she does her. But not everyone we met in the book is convinced that returning to work is an acceptable thing for a mother to do and while the story behind the university’s current excavation makes it clear that the problem is nothing new, the question of whether it is a decision that is always taken in the child’s best interest is definitely raised.
As is the question of how far you should go to save a marriage that appears to be floundering. Ruth has (almost) accepted that Nelson is never going to leave his wife and live as a family with her and Kate. Indeed, in her more honest moments she knows that this is a relationship she would find hard to sustain. But there are other marriages strained to breaking point in this story and Griffiths explores the extremes to which some people will go in order to bolster up a relationship that has, in reality, become toxic for all concerned.
This is the best that Griffiths has been for some time. Bringing a fresh face in in the person of DS Tim Heathfield has allowed her to offer new insights into characters that might just have started to become stale and my concern that in exiling Cathbad (Ruth’s druid friend) to the wilds of Lancashire she was losing one of the strongest elements of her stories proves to be unfounded. Cathbad knows how to make an entrance.
And, there is still that wonderful narrative voice. Who is the observer who recounts these stories to us? Despite the fact that she shares her outlook on life, it isn’t Ruth because there are times when the point of view shifts. Does it matter? Not really, because whoever it is shares my outlook on life too and I will go back to this and the other novels in this series time and time again to enjoy not only the story but the storyteller as well.
With thanks to Quercus Publishing, who made this book available for review.