I was pretty excited this month when a new book arrived in the post from Quercus. With a dark and eerie cover suggestive of an underlying threat, I was immediately intrigued. Likewise, the author quote on the front from none other than Val McDermid, a master of crime/mystery, may also have helped, marking this as one of her ‘favourite series’. Admittedly I had never really heard a lot about Elly Griffiths or her Ruth Galloway Mystery series, but I was more than happy to delve into The Chalk Pit, the ninth novel in this series.
As always, The Chalk Pit follows the character of Ruth Galloway. When bones are discovered in the tunnels beneath the city, archaeologist Ruth is the first to investigate. Realising that the bones are likely to be less than five years old, and have also been boiled, there are fears that a terrible crime has been committed. Meanwhile, DCI Harry Nelson is attempting to trace the cause of the disappearance of a homeless woman, following rumours from the streets that she may have gone ‘underground’. Whilst the theories seem pretty unfounded, the pressure is massively increased when another person sleeping on the streets is found murdered, quickly followed by the disappearance of a second woman. With things quickly escalating, the possibility of the Underground must be faced, and the truth discovered before more victims can be claimed.
I really liked the opening of this novel for two reasons. Firstly, we find DCI Nelson attending a speed awareness course, loathing every minute of his required presence. His passion for speed and dislike for the legal speed limits really seems to jar with his profession, with him taking ‘pride in breaking almost all the traffic rules’ (p. 11) on his way back to the station. There is this suggestion that Nelson is not the stereotypical law abiding police officer, which made me curious as to how he would react to following up on a crime which has been committed. Secondly, the opening also follows Ruth. As an archaeologist Ruth is already challenging quite a traditionally male dominated industry, which I always find interesting. I also really appreciated the fact that Ruth is not a detective or a private investigator, a pattern which many crime novels follows, meaning that Ruth gives a much more interesting insight into a very different profession and a new approach to crime.
Interestingly, my favourite aspect of this novel was not necessarily the plot (which I did enjoy), but the approach the book takes when looking at those who are either forced or have made the choice to live rough on the streets. I don’t really think this is something which is talked about an awful lot in literature and I was really pleased to see it here. Griffiths examines the ways in which society view those who live on the streets, and the emotions which are conjured when faced with them. Whilst many people do give up their time to try and make life easier for those who have nothing, for many the reminder is often uncomfortable, something which is easily dismissed.
What saddening me when reading this book was the realistic nature of how the general public seem to care little for what happens to these kinds of people. As we see in the novel, the investigations surrounding the disappearance of a homeless person are severely limited, and easily thrown away by the majority of society. By then orchestrating the further disappearance of a married mother, the author provides a sharp contrast in the approaches taken between the two victims, highlighting the higher public interest taken for this young mother. In one chapter we read:
‘Judy looks at Bilbo, who has taken off his hate to reveal sparse grey hair. In a different context, he would just be an elderly man at the golf club or shopping centre. It’s so thin, the line between respectability and chaos’ (p. 49).
This passage is extremely honest about the ways in which society is so often prejudiced towards someone because of their living circumstances, and shows how easily someone’s perspective can be altered to follow this.
One of the things which quite surprised me in this book was the way in which the relationships were presented between the adult characters. I found them to be quite real and honest in the ways they did not necessarily present us with traditional family units, instead giving a range of relationships which were more unique and sometimes difficult. Things don’t always work out in reality, and not everything has the ending we wish for. Nevertheless, life must go on, and I think in Ruth especially we see this mentality despite her difficult home life.
I would say this book is fast paced, but not in a wholly plot dominated way. This is a good thing, as although there is a clear structure to the plot, it is not so focused upon it that we lose out on characterisation and the more minute details of real life. I actually think the book is more about the build up and the feelings created as opposed to the actual crime committed. I feel that many novels of this genre are so determined to keep their reader in suspense that they lose out on the rest of the novel for the sake of an engaging plot, which does not always pay off. I also think what helped this novel avoid such pitfalls was the way in which the narrative follows many different characters, not solely limited to Ruth and Nelson. By doing this we are able to constantly view the case in question with fresh eyes and from different gender and professional perspectives. This helped keep the book from becoming quite stale, which may have been the case if it had followed only one person hashing out the same clues.
Although this is the ninth book in the Ruth Galloway Mystery series, do not let this deter you. Having never read any of the previous books, I still found this book to be wholly readable on its own. Griffiths is able to feed us enough of the history of the characters without a tedious information overload. As a result, I wanted to go back and read the earlier novels, but only because I was drawn in by the characters and wanted to explore further how certain connections were made. I felt that reading the earlier books would enrich my experience, rather than being a necessity to enjoy the newest book. In a similar train of thought, the ending of the book has left me very much wanting to read the next installment when it comes out and to receive answers to many of the questions the conclusion left.
Whilst reading this book, I felt that it would be extremely adaptable for TV, and would not be surprised if such things happening in the future. Having said that, one of the things which I was slightly disappointed with was the lack of archaeology within the book. With this being Ruth’s profession, I did hope that we would learn more about it and delve deeper into the secrets of the past, although perhaps this has already been explored earlier in the series. Even so, I did find this a quick and easy enjoyable read, and would definitely be interesting in reading both the earlier and newer novels to come. The book was recently released on the 13th July and is now available for purchase.
Disclaimer – I was very kindly sent this book in exchange for a review. I will only ever post my own, honest opinions and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.