Sign up for e-News Donate
Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths

December 1, 2014

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company:  New York
2014 (HC)

The sixth Ruth Galloway mystery takes the reader into the dark landscape of child abduction and the even more sinister world of the death of very young children.  Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway and her crew have unearthed the remains of criminals executed in past centuries on the grounds Norwich Castle in the County of Norfolk, England.  Among the “outcast dead” are the skeletal remains of a woman with an iron hook prosthesis—very possibly she may be the notorious Jemima Green, known in the popular press of the day as “Mother Hook,” executed for the murder of a child fostered out to her in Victorian times.  She was hanged for the offense—and for the suspicion that she may have killed as many as twenty children in her care.

As Ruth carries on her grisly tasks, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, Ruth’s one-time lover and father to Ruth’s little girl Kate, grapples with an even more malign situation.  He is charged with investigating Liz Donaldson, the mother of three little boys, all of whom have died sequentially.  The deaths of the first two boys, Samuel and Isaac, were deemed “unexplained” by the medical examiner and the third and most recent, David, was likely smothered.  Liz Donaldson, despite all reports that she was the perfect mother and wife and completely incapable of such crimes, is the number one suspect in Harry Nelson’s eyes.

As Nelson’s investigations proceed apace, Ruth finds herself involved in a situation that greatly offends her sense of professionalism.  Her department head has agreed to cooperate with the producers of a television reality program called “Women Who Kill” to feature in all its gory excess the excavation of “Mother Hook” by Ruth and her crew.  To add insult to the festering injury, an American historian of Victorian England, will be brought in to lend historic context to Ruth’s archaeological finds.  To her great surprise, Ruth finds herself liking Frank Barker, the American historian, and respecting his search for the truth behind the legend of Jemima Green, the infamous Mother Hook.  In fact, he believes she was the victim of Victorian Era prejudices and was innocent of the charges against her.  He hopes his research in combination with Ruth’s investigations might bring some belated justice to Jemima Green.

Meanwhile Harry Nelson and his team’s investigations become much more difficult as the abduction of a baby girl, Poppy Granger, from a well-to-do family adds to their caseload.  A web of coincidence seems to grow as the little girl’s nanny, Justine Thomas, has also been the childminder—babysitter—for little David Donaldson.  Adding to the closing circle of coincidence is Justine’s friendship with a young woman whose younger sister, Scarlet Henderson, was murdered some years before—Harry Nelson’s greatest regret as a policeman—and the fact that Liz Donaldson was a friend of Scarlet’s mother!  Just when it seems that these separate but entangled cases cannot possibly become more complicated, Harry Nelson’s investigative team is dealt a crushing blow when Detective Sergeant Judy Johnson’s little boy is taken—apparently by the same villain who snatched Poppy Granger—who identifies him or herself as “The Childminder.”

Elly Griffith once again very artfully brings the threads of these tragedies, separated by more than one hundred fifty years, together in a tense and compelling tale of love, devotion and delusion.  Three trowels for The Outcast Dead.