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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths

September 1, 2011

Quercus Books:  London
2010 (pb)

The Janus Stone picks up three months following the first Ruth Galloway forensic archaeology novel, The Crossing Places and continues the same high quality story telling and tension-filled drama found in that initial mystery.  Ruth is a middle-aged archaeologist who teaches at the University of North Norfolk in the bleak but beautifully barren northern reaches of England and is occasionally called upon by the police as a consultant when her forensic skills are required.

The story opens with Ruth visiting the excavations at Swaffham conducted by the appealing University of Sussex archaeologist, Max Gray.  It is a complex dig featuring a Roman villa built over Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements—and a headless body buried beneath the villa wall.  This macabre yet fascinating find may be evidence of a cult sacrifice to Janus, the god of doors and openings, or Terminus, the god of boundaries.  Ruth hopes to return to the site—not only because of the archaeological mystery but also because of undeniable charm of Max Gray.

She is abruptly called upon to consult on a police inquiry at a site in Norwich.  University archaeologists have been called in to do a contract dig on Woolmarket Street, where a Victorian mansion is to be developed into apartment flats.  The mansion was built over a churchyard, which may have overlain a Roman site.  The developer, Edward Spens, is a wealthy and influential man within the Norwich community and he does not appreciate the delays in construction that the archaeologists require—especially when the skeleton of a decapitated child is found buried beneath an ornate doorway within the Victorian mansion.  DCI Harry Nelson heads up the investigation for the police and Ruth is asked to glean as much information about the victim as possible to further the official inquiry.  The arrangement is a difficult one for Ruth as she is carrying the child of Harry Nelson, a married father of two daughters!

The investigation quickly establishes that the mansion was used as a children’s home run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart from 1960 and the police learn that a young brother and sister disappeared from the home in the early 1970s, never to be heard of again.  Could the headless body beneath the door be that of the little girl missing since 1973?  Could the saintly retired priest, Father Hennessey, be responsible for such a heinous crime?  Or could it be the demented work of the bitter and dying nun, Sister Immaculata, who seems to know more than she is willing to tell police.

But the investigation seems to hit a dead-end as Ruth determines, by employing the tools of forensic dentistry, that the little victim was born before 1955 whereas Elizabeth Black, the missing girl, was born in 1968.  Further research into the building on Woolmarket Street shows that the home was owned and lived in by several generations of the Spens family, including Sir Roderick Spens, the father of Edward, the real estate developer anxious to get on with the work of building new housing units on the property.

The plot continues to take unexpected twists and turns as Ruth struggles with the emotional burden of carrying Harry Nelson’s child at the same time that a very real and present-day danger is stalking her.  The death of the unfortunate little girl in the house on Woolmarket Street may have taken place more than fifty years in the past, but someone in the present seems to not want that mystery solved.  Was the little girl meant to be a sacrifice to an ancient god?  And is another sacrifice, after all these years, now again being demanded?

Four trowels for the second Ruth Galloway mystery!