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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths

March 1, 2013

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company:  New York
2012 (HC)

With A Room Full of Bones, author Elly Griffiths continues the same high quality of writing and storytelling that readers have come to expect since her highly acclaimed initial Ruth Galloway mystery, The Crossing Places.   Ruth is a middle-aged forensic archaeologist at the not-particularly prestigious University of North Norfolk near the North Sea coast.  Her life has been recently enriched and complicated by the birth of a daughter, whom she is raising as a single mother.  While rearing a one-year-old is a challenge for anyone, or any two people, author Griffiths is to be commended for not allowing her heroine to descend into self pity or self indulgence; the presence of one-year-old Kate and the complicated relationship Ruth must maintain with the child’s father, the very married Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, neither detracts from nor get in the way of the story line, but rather adds to the character and depth of the main protagonists.

The novel opens with the delivery of a coffin, recently unearthed by salvage archaeologists within the foundations of a medieval church, the future site of a supermarket to be built in King’s Lynn, to the Smith Museum.  The coffin is believed to hold the body of the sainted 14th Century Bishop Augustine Smith, an ancestor of the family that sponsors the museum and many other local philanthropic enterprises.  Ruth has been called upon to provide expertise as the coffin is to be opened in the presence of the public and the news media.  Arriving a bit early at the museum, Ruth is horrified to find the body of the young curator Neil Topham beneath the trestle table upon which the coffin rests—the victim of foul play or natural causes?

DCI Harry Nelson is drawn away, at least momentarily, from a long-running drug smuggling investigation, to investigate the curator’s death—a death that is looking much less natural when he discovers drugs and a sinister letter in Topham’s desk drawer.  The letter reads, “You have ignored our requests.  Now you will suffer the consequences.  You have violated our dead.  Now the dead will be revenged upon you.  We will come for you.  We will come for you in the dreaming.”

The investigation leads to Lord Danforth Smith, the present heir to the Smith patrimony as well as acclaimed racehorse trainer and reluctant local celebrity.  Lord Smith seems to be honestly stunned by the news of the young curator’s death and discloses that he and his family have been threatened by the Elginists, a shadowy group dedicated to the repatriation of artifacts and human remains to their homelands.  The Smith Museum, it seems has housed human remains of Australian indigenous peoples, collected by the wily and unscrupulous great-grandfather of the present-day Lord Smith.

Ruth is again drawn into this web of mystery and mayhem when Lord Smith asks her to turn her trained eye on this macabre collection—literally a room full of bones.  Although her professional and ethical standards require her to demand of Lord Smith that the remains be immediately repatriated—a recommendation he does not easily accept—Ruth is again on hand when Bishop Augustine’s coffin is finally opened and an even greater shock is in store for the Smith dynasty—and then within a day of that event Lord Smith dies in the throes of violent and feverish dreams, just as Bishop Augustine Smith was said to have experienced when struggling against the powers of Satan!

Dark powers seem to be arrayed against the household of the Smith clan as DCI Nelson and his unit of investigators, along with Ruth, struggle to find rational answers to these bewildering occurrences.  Answers are ultimately provided after a frenzy of action takes place literally on a dark and stormy night and evil, both ancient and contemporary, is brought to light.

Three trowels for this fourth and very atmospheric Ruth Galloway mystery.