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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths

February 1, 2017

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:  New York City
2016 (HC)

The bucolic town of Walsingham in Norfolk has been a place of pilgrimage throughout England’s Christian era and perhaps stretching back into its pagan past.  Cathbad, the neo-Druid who is house- and cat-sitting for a friend in Walsingham, is told that the village has a nasty atmosphere, has been cursed since its monks were executed by Henry VIII, and is haunted by the Blue Lady of Walsingham.

It is in this setting and with this gothic ambiance that Elly Griffiths begin her most recent Ruth Galloway mystery.  The village would appear to deserve its dark reputation when a beautiful young woman, dressed in a white gown and flowing blue cloak, is found strangled on the road to the Roman Catholic Slipper Chapel.  Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson and his team of investigators are called in to investigate and quickly discern that the victim, Chloe Jenkins, has been a patient at the nearby Sanctuary, a treatment and rehabilitation center.  Earlier on the evening of the murder, Cathbad had seen a woman in blue in the St. Simeon graveyard behind his borrowed cottage, and reports his vision to Nelson.  Was it Chloe Jenkins or the mystical Blue Lady of Walsingham?

As the details of the murder unfold, Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist and lecturer at the University of North Norfolk, is drawn into the web of Walsingham mysteries.  Hilary Smithson, a classmate in archaeology who has since become an Anglican priest, asks for Ruth’s help as she has received a number of increasingly dire threats because she is a female cleric.  The threats specify Walsingham, where Hilary will be attending a conference on women preparing for the episcopacy (becoming bishops within the Church of England), an archaeological dig in the village, and most frightening of all, her child.

While DCI Nelson’s team try to solve Chloe’s murder and Ruth tries to help her beleaguered friend, the two threads become hopelessly intertwined when Harry Nelson’s wife Michelle is attacked and nearly strangled in the St. Simeon graveyard and later the same night Paula Moncrief, a fellow priest of Hilary’s attending the conference on women in the priesthood, is strangled and found nearby.   It is lost on no one that all three victims—Chloe, Michelle and Paula—were tall, beautiful, blonde women.  The hunt for a fanatic killer is on, with a number of potential suspects presenting tantalizing possibilities to the investigating team of police.  Ruth continues her train of investigation, believing the threats made to Hilary containing references to archaeological studies in Walsingham, hint at a motive more complex than hatred toward women clergy.

When Stanley Greenway, former Anglican priest, fellow patient and best friend of Chloe’s at the Sanctuary, and a known sex offender confesses to killing the young woman, the case seems to be closed.  But is it?  Both Ruth and Nelson have their doubts and it’s possible that the killing in Walsingham is not yet at end.

Elly Griffiths continues her masterful storytelling in this, the eighth Ruth Galloway novel, and while her main characters are not always loveable—sometimes they’re not even very likeable—the mysteries are always compelling and the denouements always unanticipated.  Four trowels for The Woman in Blue.