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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

June 1, 2010

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:  New York
2010 (pb)

It’s always a treat to come upon a new author and a new archaeology-based mystery series; it’s downright exciting when that author proves to be a very talented writer and the mystery proves to be intriguing and very compelling.  Ruth Galloway is a near-middle aged, not very glamorous forensic archaeologist who teaches at the University of North Norfolk, who is called upon by the local police to help identify the remains of a small person in the tidal salt marsh bordering the sea.  The police—particularly Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson—has been nearly obsessive in a ten-year old cold case search for a missing little girl named Lucy Downey.  Nelson believes their search may be sadly over but needs Ruth’s forensic skills to aid them in identification.

The remains turn out to be those of a little girl—but she appears to have been dead for some 2,000 years—possibly a sacrificial offering to the Iron Age gods of that remote location on the English coast.  Ruth and DCI Nelson seem not particularly fond of each other at first—he has a built in wariness of academics, it would seem—but a bond of trust does build and he confesses that his obsession is fueled by a series of letter he has received over the years—letters that seem to provide arcane clues to the whereabouts of Lucy, but also designed to frustrate his efforts by their very opaqueness.  Then a second little girl, Scarlet Henderson, goes missing and a tortured Harry Nelson entrusts the letters to Ruth and she notes for him that along with references to ritual and sacrifice and the maddeningly obscure statement that the body may be found “where the earth meets the sky,” they also include quotes and paraphrases from the Bible, Shakespeare, t.s. eliot, and Norse, pagan and Greek mythology, along with technical terms used almost exclusively by archaeologists.  Ruth believes the Saltmarsh holds the secret to the missing girls and she is drawn into the present day mystery of the missing girls just as she is drawn into the mystery of the Iron Age burial—which is compounded when a second 2,000 year old burial is discovered in the backyard of Scarlet Henderson’s home!

The Saltmarsh itself becomes a key “character” in the novel in a most intriguing way.  A decade earlier, a young Ruth Galloway worked on the excavation of a henge circle—a circular bank surrounded by a ditch that served as a ritual space in pre-historic times—in the Saltmarsh.  Because of this dig, she fell in love with the rugged and remote landform of the marsh and moved into a home there.  The Saltmarsh also provided her with bittersweet memories of a love affair with a fellow crew member and an unrequited romantic passion for her mentor and excavation director, Erik Anderssen.  The stormy, unsettled weather of the Saltmarsh during mid-winter provides an eerie and unsettling environment—its tidal pools, sinkholes and quicksand threaten to swallow up those who wander out on its vastness just as the mystery of the missing girls threaten swallow up all those who participated in that dig a decade earlier—at the same time that Lucy Downey disappeared—as well as DCI Nelson.

When all of the principle players in that henge circle excavation begin to return to Ruth’s world—including her former mentor, her former lover and a mysterious would-be New Age druid who appears to have been constantly on the periphery of not only the henge circle dig but the family of the missing Scarlet Henderson, she begins to wonder if she can trust anyone.  Then, while under a loose form of protective custody because Harry Nelson fears she may be in grave peril as the investigation gains momentum, she receives an anonymous text message that reads:  I know where you are! 

Elly Griffiths weaves a mystical adventure, seamlessly linking police and archaeological investigatory techniques, and a final denouement that leaves the reader virtually breathless.  The personalities she has created are drawn with a deft pen and there is a depth to her characters—particularly Ruth and Harry Nelson—that make them believable and sympathetic—even when they may behave in not particularly admirable fashion.

Four trowels for this, the first Ruth Galloway mystery—and I would assign more if I could.  This is a must read!