Readers who haven’t yet discovered Elly Griffiths’ wonderful mystery series set on the remote and scenic ocean sands of Norwich, England, have a delayed treat in store. Griffiths’ newest, The Outcast Dead, continues to pique our interest in her continuing characters: forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway and the stable of marvelous, scruffy characters that inhabit her life, including DCI Harry Nelson, the father of Ruth’s 3-year-old daughter. (This is mostly a secret, though not to Nelson’s wife, Michelle.)
Not the least of the major characters in these novels is the picturesque though vaguely scary setting. Ruth chooses to live in relative isolation near the edge of a salt marsh, amid sand dunes, sea grass and ocean light. Notably, in the series debut, The Crossing Places, the remains of an ancient henge are discovered amid the sands, setting the tone for the entire series.
In The Outcast Dead, while on a dig near Norwich Castle, Ruth uncovers what appear to be the remains of a Victorian child murderer known as Mother Hook, infamous in Norfolk history, nursery rhymes and horror tales for the iron hook she wore in place of a missing hand. Though she was executed for the crimes, there’s some historical evidence that suggests she may have been innocent, and Ruth is asked to participate in a popular British TV series exploring the notorious events.
Eerily and coincidentally, Nelson and his police force have arrested a local woman suspected of killing her own child, and there are limited but striking connections to an old child murder case in which both Nelson and Ruth were involved. Tensions mount when two local children go missing, and one is the son of a member of Nelson’s police team.
Among this series’ best features are its many moments of wry humor, as we’re witness to characters’ inmost thoughts and sometimes-outward rants. Storylines wander and then converge, as we’re drawn into the lives of the colorful individuals that Griffiths paints so well. There are just a few too many characters floating around—most notably, children—and it’s sometimes a challenge to keep them straight and to remember whom they belong to and who has begotten whom. But we never lose sight of the action, which is purposefully written and always enhanced by a setting that manages to be both enticing and dangerous.