“A little onward lend thy guiding hand” as Samson said in Milton’s interminable poem, and we are headed towards the Norfolk coast, where we will meet up with an engaging archaeologist who has a disturbing habit of discovering present day corpses, along with the bones of long-dead Bronze Age folk. Ruth Galloway is the creation of Domenica de Rosa, better known to readers as Elly Griffiths, and she is one of the most convincingly human of present day crime fiction heroines. Galloway is, of course, in a long line of amateur investigators and, like many of her predecessors, she needs a connection to the professional police force so that the stories remain plausible. In Galloway’s case, the connection is deeply personal, as her police contact is a King’s Lynn based detective who was once her lover. Harry Nelson (and there’s a proud Norfolk name) is the father of Galloway’s daughter Kate, yet he still lives more-or-less peaceably with his wife Michelle, and they too have children. The relationship between Galloway and Nelson is unusual, to say the least, but it provides an interesting counterpoint to the discovery of bodies and the search for murderers.
The crime fiction tropes which lead to bodies being discovered, thus setting in chain a murder investigation, are many and varied. A long standing favourite is the dog-walker, and then there is the cleaner who makes an unwelcome discovery when she enters a house. People on boats or perhaps fishing on river banks are pretty good for ‘floaters’, but archaeologists – whose very job involves digging – are better than most. Elly Griffiths makes excellent use of this device, but it never becomes trite, mainly because she is such a gifted writer.
A resident player in the Galloway-Griffiths Repertory Company is an ageing hippy called Cathbad. His real name is Michael Malone, and he frequently adds a touch of mysticism (real or imagined) to proceedings. To my shame, I always imagine him as Nigel Planer in The Young Ones, but that, perhaps, does him – and Elly Griffiths – a disservice.
Crime novels are not all about location, but having an affinity with landscape – and the ability to make it a character in the narrative – never hurts, and Elly Griffiths brings the North Norfolk Coast to life. I live not too far away, and cynical locals have re-christened the area ‘Chelsea-on-Sea’, due to the gentrification of villages, and the surge in properties being bought up as weekend retreats for wealthy people from the Home Counties. There remains, of course, a rougher local under-current, and this features in the most recent Ruth Galloway novel, The Nighthawks. Click the link to read my review, and keep an eye open for the next novel in the series, The Locked Room, which is due to be published in early 2022.
The next stage of our journey is to a town that doesn’t exist – at least on an Ordance Survey map. Writers have always created fictional towns based on real places – think Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge, Trollope’s Barchester, Arnold Bennett’s Bursley, Herriot’s Darrowby, and Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub – but remember that each was based on a real life place well known to the writer. Thus we drive along a road that skirts the windswept and muddy shores of The Wash until we arrive in Boston, Lincolnshire. It was here that the journalist and writer Colin Watson lived and worked for many years, and it was in Boston’s image that he created Flaxborough – the home and jurisdiction of Inspector Walter Purbright.
Watson wrote an entertaining book about English crime fiction. He called it Snobbery With Violence (1971), and he was not particularly complimentary about several crime writers who contributed to what we call The Golden Age, but it shows that he was a man who read widely, and took his craft seriously. Any serious student of crime fiction should read it, but must bear in mind it was written by a man who became seriously disillusioned with writing and the world of publishing. The last book in the series was Whatever’s Been Going on at Mumblesby? which was published in 1982. Watson died in 1983, but had retired to the village of Folkingham, where he had taken up silver-smithing, and had remarked to a visiting journalist that writing was something of a mugs’ game, with too little reward for too much effort. His characters had, however briefly, been adapted for a four-episode TV series in the 1970s, with Anton Rodgers as Purbright and Christopher Timothy as Sergeant Love. For more about Colin Watson on the Fully Booked site, click the author’s image.