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British Mysteries

The Crossing Places, Elly Griffiths, Mariner, $14.95.

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When authors mention another author as someone they enjoyed discovering, I take notice.  Libby Hellmann asked me on a recent visit who I had enjoyed reading recently and I mentioned S.J. Bolton, and she countered with Elly Griffiths (Libby is also a fan of Bolton’s).  Recently Griffiths won the Mary Higgins Clark award and this spurred my curiosity even more, and I could put off reading The Crossing Places no longer.  I read it through in a day, with the kind of growing enjoyment that made me wonder “Are there more?”  (Yes, one more, and another due in January.)  One reason the book is so wonderful - though only one of them - is the heroine, archeologist Ruth Galloway.

Ruth is almost 40, unapologetically overweight and uninterested in cosmetics or clothes, happy to live on the edge of a deserted marsh and bird sanctuary, and she’s happiest digging in the mud.  In a word, she’s very comfortable in her own skin and she’s an absolutely wonderful character.  She’s also smart and fearless but fearless in a way that gives you some hope, as in, you might be able to be fearless the way she is.  She’s not throwing herself out of moving cars or in front of a gun, but she’s fearless when it comes to people, and her instincts, in the end, serve her well.  The archaeology may be a bit familiar to any fan of Erin Hart, though the action here takes place in Norfolk rather than Ireland.  Other than that the similarities are many - there’s even a bog body.

Griffiths has a natural story teller’s gift, as well.  Her plot is well put together and fast paced, with characters introduced quickly and established firmly - you feel you know all of them.  The central story centers on a missing little girl who has been snatched out of her back yard, but it’s tied, in the mind of one policeman at least, to the disappearance of another little girl ten years ago, one who has never been found.  As the book opens with the discovery of a body and works backwards from there, it’s obvious that at least one of the girls didn’t make it, but Griffiths keeps you guessing.

The ripples of the crime are well covered and the involvement of Ruth, called in by the police to look at some bones (they turn out to be Iron Age) accelerates in a believable way.  One of the best aspects of the book, along with the bleak setting, is the tension Griffiths is able to capture between the pure practicality of policing and the pure intellectualism of the academics who surround Ruth.  Ruth herself falls somewhere in the middle, and she’s trapped between her respect for the investigating detective, Harry Nelson, and her affection for her mentor and fellow academic, Erik Andersson.  Harry and Erik personify polar opposites.  This reminded me very much of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s first book where the spirituality of priest Clare is contrasted with the practical atheism of law enforcement officer Russ.  Griffith doesn’t play it out in such absolute terms but it’s a central concept of the book.

At the same time this is a brisk police procedural that never stops moving.  The pace, character development and plot all seem to reflect the skills of a more established author, but incredibly, this is a first book.  Discover Elly and her wonderful creation, Ruth Galloway, for yourself.  You won’t be sorry.

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