Saturday, 18 September 2010
The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths
Well now, this is the real thing and no mistake. The Crossing Places is exactly what I want in a murder mystery. A quick warning before I start extolling its virtues, though – it’s written in the historical present, and I know some people hate that so much that they won’t even start reading. If you really can’t bear it, this is not for you, but you’re missing something.
I said the other day that perhaps it was easier to create a sense of place when you’re writing about a city, that the countryside is just too varied these days. I’m delighted to be proved wrong by practically the next book that I’ve picked up, because here we are on the North Norfolk coast. And I do mean here we are: you can feel the sand in your face and eyes, the wind whipping your hair as you cross the Saltmarsh in Ruth’s wake, as she heads for the henge that she and her fellow archaeologists discovered some years ago. Yes, we’re digging things up again, wooden posts in a circle to form a henge and, ultimately, bones. The body in question turns out to have been there for some time, to the frustration of DCI Harry Nelson, who has called Ruth in to advise, because he’s looking for the body of Lucy Downey, who has been missing for ten years.
The choice of tense gives great immediacy to both plot and people. Although the story is told in the third person the reader is privy to the thoughts and feelings of the two main characters in a way that feels natural: one of my constant gripes when I’m reading is when the point of view switches sharply between characters; relatively few authors can really pull it off, but here the tense works in Griffiths’ favour, I think. Within a few pages of the beginning I felt as though Ruth was an old friend, a strong, slightly prickly woman who could nonetheless be good company. She’s slightly frumpy, likes cats and isn’t afraid to open a bottle of wine when she’s on her own. Her behaviour as the plot develops is plausible too – she isn’t foolhardy in the face of danger as so many heroines tend to be (proponents of what I think of as the “let’s split up and search in different directions” school) but has enough imagination to make her a good archaeologist and investigator. There’s little of the suppressed but barely controlled neediness of Temperance Brennan or Kay Scarpetta, neither of whom I’d consider inviting in for a glass of something.
Harry Nelson, too, is a policeman you feel you could trust, solid and dependable, with just enough of the maverick to make him interesting. At one point we are told he likes to drive everywhere as if he’s in pursuit, and is rather pleased if the traffic cops give chase thinking he’s a member of the public (actually, you would imagine that in King’s Lynn they would pretty quickly learn to recognise his unmarked car, but it’s a nice touch).
The story of the missing child is tight and tense, the anguish of the parents well-drawn. I did guess who was responsible, but I rarely mind that anyway, and the twists of the plot kept me just uncertain enough until the last moments. I liked, too, that things weren’t wrapped up too abruptly – sometimes you are left wondering about the immediate aftermath of events, but Griffiths has the confidence to finish things satisfactorily, while leaving things very nicely set up for the next in the series. There’s a third already on its way, so I think we have a substantial series in view. Griffiths was shortlisted for the Theakston’s crime novel award this year: she didn’t win, but it’s a tremendous achievement for a first in a series, and she’d have had my vote.
There is an excellent interview with Elly Griffiths at The Book Whisperer, where I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that she loves Wilkie Collins – in fact, I’d have put money on it!