The 2011 Mary Higgins Clark Award-winner, Elly Griffiths, is the author of a series of crime novels set in England’s Norfolk county and featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway. The first in the series, The Crossing Places, earned a good deal of praise both in Griffiths’ native country, England, and in the U.S. The Literary Review termed it “a cleverly plotted and extremely interesting first novel, highly recommended.” Kirkus Reviews also lauded the work, noting, “A winning debut…. the first-rate characters and chilling story are entrancing from start to finish.”
The second in the series, The Janus Stone, once again finds Ruth on the trail of murder and mayhem in the past in a novel about which the London Independent observed: “The setting is enticingly atmospheric. I closed the book wanting to know more… as well as feeling the satisfaction that a really intelligent murder story can give.” Third in the series, The House at Seas End, just out in England, has Ruth investigating deaths from World War II. The Independent felt that Griffiths “conjures the bleak north Norfolk coast, using its coastal erosion as a metaphor for the decay of human sympathy.” The Guardian found the entire series “gripping,” further commenting that book three “is just as enthralling as its predecessors.”
Book three and four have also now appeared in the U.S. In The House at Sea’s End, Ruth is just returning to work after giving birth to a daughter and is investigating a very cold case. This involves skeletons from the past–six of them with hands bound and bullet wounds to the head. Local policeman DCI Nelson is called in on the case, which complicates matters for Ruth, as the married detective is the father of her child. But the two manage to carry on the investigation that leads to an atrocity from World War II. A Kirkus Reviews contributor felt this novel “offers not only an excellent mystery but a continuing exploration of the lives of complex, sometimes unlovable characters.” Similarly, Booklist dubbed it “another winner from the talented Griffiths.”
Book four in the series, A Room Full of Bones, finds Ruth and Nelson again teaming up to solve a pair of murders at a local museum. Booklist found this a “thoroughly involving mystery,” while the Guardian termed it a “welcome addition to a great series.”
Elly, it’s great to have you on Scene of the Crime. Your work has been commended not only for the characterization–Ruth is a wonderful character–but also for its evocation of place. Let’s start with a discussion of your connection to the setting for the Ruth Galloway books.
My books are set in Norfolk. I don’t live there but, when I was a child, we always used to go on to Norfolk on holiday, staying with my aunt who had a boat on the Norfolk Broads. I have lots of memories of drifting through the beautiful eerie landscape while my aunt told stories about ghost and water spirits….
Ruth, my heroine, is an archaeologist and so, for me, one of the wonderful things about Norfolk is the wealth of archaeology and history. This land has been inhabited many times – from Bronze and Iron Age settlements to the Roman invasion and more recent, but still fascinating, history. My first book The Crossing Places started with Iron Age remains, the second The Janus Stone involved a Roman excavation and the third The House At Seas End is about bodies dating from the Second World War. It’s all there!
Well, for me, the setting came first. I was walking across Titchwell Marsh with my husband, an archaeologist, when he remarked that prehistoric man saw marshland as sacred – because it was neither land nor sea, but something in-between, they saw it as a kind of bridge to the afterlife. The entire plot of The Crossing Places came to me in that second.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
Because Ruth is an archaeologist, digging down through layers of history, the landscape is a constant presence. Not only are bodies excavated from the ground but the land itself yields clues – the shape and colour of the grass, a ring of stones, a yew tree growing in a graveyard…
How does Ruth interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Ruth?
Ruth is from South London (where I lived for many years) and, like me, she has no idea why she is so drawn to lonely coastal landscapes. The other main character, Detective Inspector Harry Nelson, is from Blackpool and he loathes everything about Norfolk.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
It seems to rain a lot in my books and someone told me that, statistically, Norfolk is quite dry. All I can say is – it always rains when I’m on holiday there.
Of the Ruth Galloway novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
I feel awkward quoting my own work, but I do like the first description of the Saltmarsh, the isolated coastline where Ruth lives.
“Everything is pale and washed out, grey-green merging to grey-white as the marsh meets sky. Far off is the sea, a line of darker grey, seagulls riding in on the waves. It is utterly desolate and Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves it so much.”
My favourite author of all times is Wilkie Collins. I love the way he can imbue a place with a sense of menace, for example the Shivering Sands in The Moonstone. I’m sure it has influenced me.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime, Elly.
For more information about Elly Griffiths, visit her homepage.