I was both charmed and haunted by the first Ruth Galloway mystery, The Crossing Places (Ruth Galloway). Griffith's sense of place--the salt marshes of Norwich, England--was stark and moodily disquieting. The land seemed almost anthropomorphic in its presence, and served to heighten the story and even strengthen the weak spots, including her strained and rushed denouement. Ruth, a Ph.D. anthropologist, is a flawed and frank woman of forty, an unapologetic atheist with a no-nonsense style. In this second installment, she remains steadfast. One of my favorite lines is:
"...God is a made-up fairy tale, like Snow White, only nastier."
And she is now three months pregnant. The father is Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, the taciturn and capable, and generally happily married father of two teenage daughters. In the first novel, Ruth and Harry were thrown together in a case. Bones buried beneath the marshes led to a twisted investigation and one intimate night together, a night where forces almost transcendent brought them together. They did not embark on a continuous affair, and their feelings for each other are blurry. Harry is still a bit of a cynical enigma, but a tender family man.
Now, in the heather and coarse grasses of Swaffham, a university-supported ancient Roman dig site is the primary location for the second team-up of Ruth and Nelson. Bones are again unearthed--this time the headless skeleton of a child of indeterminate age and time. Complicating matters is the necessary interruption of a development project of entrepreneur Edward Sens. He is building a seventy-four-unit luxury apartment complex on this site that was once a Catholic orphanage.
A cat-and-mouse crime thriller ensues, with a variety of new and old characters, including (but not limited to) an elderly Catholic priest, a sexy love interest for Ruth, (he is also an anthropologist), a dying nun, and Cathbad, the Druid, from the first novel. Griffiths balances Ruth's personal story and the criminal investigation with sufficient finesse and wry wit, and there is a tough tension whenever Ruth and Nelson are in the same room or space. However, despite all the back stories of peripheral characters, they don't organically come alive. Griffiths uses too much exposition to tell, more than show, her characters and story. Even Nelson remains archly narrow, but there's hope for his character to develop.
Moreover, the landscape and climate, which was so potent in the first novel, is given short shrift in this one. It is there, and lovely when it is, but more sparing, in small doses. How disappointing, because it was the most moving aspect of the author's talent. THE JANUS STONE is lightly competent, and she has learned to control the plot better this time around, but the pacing is just as rushed. The unfolding is a bit more manageable, less hysterical, but still melodramatic. Griffith's police procedural is just another stone in the river without her earthy, lucid, topographical and climactic inclusions. The archeological parts add color and weight, but sometimes they feel like artifacts to the story, and were more telegraphed than embedded, despite their impact.
I may go back for the third installment, THE HOUSE AT SEAS END. The prologue and first few chapters were included in this book, as a tease. Why am I going back? To see what happens to Ruth and Nelson, of course. And to hope for more vibrant terrain. If I don't see significant improvement and development of character and story, then it will be my last go-round for this series. And if the author kills off Nelson's wife in some tragic accident for convenience, I will put the book down even before I finish it.