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Ruth Galloway

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 2: Norfolk and Boston

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“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.

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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.

BostonThe 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.

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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. CWAny 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.

THE NIGHT HAWKS . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2020-12-18 at 19.46.09Elly 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.

51D4BGVpbxLShortly 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.

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