Elly Griffiths, (left) whose real name is Domenica de Rosa, has created an endearing heroine in the person of Ruth Galloway, an English archaeologist who, over the course of a dozen novels, has managed to find herself at the centre of murder mysteries where the corpses are considerably more recent than the ones she normally excavates. She is a senior lecturer at the fictional University of North Norfolk, and the novels are set in and around the north and west of Norfolk. Griffiths uses real locations like King’s Lynn, Blakeney and Sheringham, and has also constructed a reliably entertaining cast of supporting players, principally Ruth’s once-upon-a-time lover, a refreshingly old fashioned married police detective called Harry Nelson. They have a child, Kate, who lives with Ruth, while Harry remains more-or-less happily married to Michelle, with whom he also has children.
In the thirteenth book in the series, The Night Hawks, we have the characters who long time readers of the series will recognise, including the middle aged druid who calls himself Cathbad. His real name is Michael Malone, but he can usually be relied upon to bring to bring a touch of the supernatural – imagined or otherwise – to the proceedings. The Night Hawks in this tale aren’t remotely sinister, despite their name. They are group of men whose hobby is traversing the ancient Norfolk landscape with their metal detectors, searching for buried artifacts. They operate at night, because it is quieter and they are less likely to be disturbed.
They get the story started with a classic Elly Griffiths trope – the finding of a Bronze Age hoard, including an ancient skeleton, alongside a body that is much more recently deceased. While the older gentleman can wait his turn to be studied and catalogued, the young man’s body is whisked off to King’s Lynn for the attention of the police pathologist.
Shortly after the grim discovery, the police are called to a remote farmhouse a few miles inland, where there are reports of gunshots being heard. This time, there is no doubt about the identity or the cause of death of two dead people found inside Black Dog Farmhouse. Dr Douglas Noakes and his wife Linda are dead from gunshot wounds, and it appears to be a clear case of murder-suicide. This clear cut diagnosis becomes rather more tenuous when questions are raised about firearms technicalities, despite an apparent suicide note being found.
The plot becomes pleasantly complicated from this point on. The late Dr and Mrs Noakes had two children, from whom they had become estranged, but was the separation bitter enough to provoke murder? Noakes was not a GP, but a research scientist, and it seems that he had been working with a Cambridge lab developing vaccines. Was this why one of the rooms at Black Dog Farmhouse was kitted out like a doctor’s surgery, complete with bed? The dead young man – the twentieth century one – is eventually identified as Jem Taylor, a 25 year-old from Cromer, who had only recently been released from prison.
There is another murder. This time the victim is a member of The Night Hawks, a retired teacher with connections to several of the people in the story. He has been battered over the head with a lump of rock, and his death further complicates matters.
Elly Griffiths has great fun by introducing some ‘spookery’ by way of a local legend – that of Black Shuck. Tales of a ghostly hellhound are spread far and wide through English folklore, and this Norfolk version is equally menacing. Like all literary amateur sleuths, Ruth Galloway’s involvement with active police investigations is pretty implausible, but delightfully so. The odd relationship between Ruth, Harry Nelson and his wife makes for an intriguing read, and added to the impeccably researched location details, The Night Hawks provides a thoroughly enjoyable and gripping few hours of entertainment. The book is published by Quercus and will be out on 4th February.