The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths

It's no secret that I eagerly await the release of every book in Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series, and it's hard to believe that we're already on book nine. I really don't feel like I've read nine of these books - clearly pages as well fly when you're having fun.

If you're not aware of the basic premise of this series, I'll briefly recap. Dr Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist at a Norfolk university, who is occasionally called upon by the local police to help them identify, or at least date, human remains. The extra dimension to the series comes from Ruth's relationship with DCI Harry Nelson, a married detective with whom Ruth had a one-night stand in the first novel, The Crossing Places, resulting in a daughter.

In The Chalk Pit, Ruth is still single, Nelson is still married to his incredibly forgiving wife and their relationship is now a friendship, but there's still an obvious spark between them that refuses to die. An ever-expanding supporting cast, most of whom also have often complicated personal lives to contend with, gives things a real ensemble feel.

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With their Norfolk setting, a will-they-won't-they subplot, a strong thread of sharp, observant humour and characters that feel like old friends, it would be easy to assume these books fall into the 'cosy crime' category - but in fact, the murder plots are often very dark and Elly Griffiths is adept at exploiting the flat, bleak landscape of Norfolk's coastal saltmarsh and the local history and folklore to make the books feel eerily atmospheric and she also excels at creating dangerously unhinged killers. In The Chalk Pit, Ruth is called in to look at some human bones that have been found buried deep underground. Are they mediaeval or modern? Could they be connected to the disappearance and murder of a number of rough sleepers, or are stories of a subterranean community of homeless people living in tunnels and sewers just a local rumour? And why do the bones show disturbing signs of being cooked?

Like the Ruth Galloway novels before it, The Chalk Pit has a gripping plot that builds to a pacy conclusion and is written in a conversational style that feels deceptively effortless and casual but includes enough well-written description to retain a vivid sense of atmosphere and place. However, it's the characters who really shine through and for me, the plot plays more of a second fiddle than it does in the previous books. Elly Griffiths is particularly good at making characters recognisable and believable without stereotyping. Nelson, for example, might lack patience with certain elements of modern policing (he begins the story at a speed awareness course intended to address his dangerous driving) but he's no Gene Hunt: he does his genuine best not to be sexist and bristles when his boss is dismissive towards a woman's disappearance because she was homeless. The complexity of Ruth and Nelson's relationship and the conflicting feelings they have for one another are also credibly portrayed.

I felt slightly sad when this book was over, as I know I'll now have to wait for the next one - although so far Elly Griffiths seems to be remarkably prolific, so fingers crossed.