Although Griffiths simplistic prose style won’t win any prestigious literary awards, her new Ruth Galloway outing remains a fasted-paced, contemporary mystery of love, lies, and ancient family secrets. Plunged into another investigation with Norwich’s gruff DI Harry Nelson, Ruth is digging at a Bronze
Age burial site on what is probably one of the hottest days in Norfolk when she gets a call from Harry that there’s a plane buried in a field nearby. Probably from the Second World War, the aircraft still has the desiccated body of the pilot trapped inside. At first glance, it looks as though the poor chap crashed the plane into the field seventy years ago, except for the fact that Ruth notices a bullet hole on the middle of the pilot’s forehead. Someone has been digging here fairly recently and has placed the skeleton in the cockpit.
land where the plane was buried has an interesting history. It’s a place of
creepy, abandoned American airplanes called “the ghost fields.” This is a lonely, windswept place that is also part of the infamous Devil’s Hollow and of Blackstock Hall, home to the ancestral Blackstock family who have lived in the Norfolk area for generations. When the DNA analysis of the pilot comes back as a positive match for Fred Blackstock, one of two long-lost Blackstock sons, both Nelson and Ruth are convinced that
the Blackstocks are hiding something, even murder.
From this point in the story, Griffiths crafts a world that centers around the inhabitants of Blackstock Hall, which is a bit like
Downton Abbey with a contemporary twist--competing siblings and an all-knowing, dotty patriarch who oversees the family with an iron will. Instead of the acerbic and insistently intelligent Lady Mary, there's Old George
and children, the calmly ineffectual Young George and Sally Blackstock, along
with grandchildren Chaz and Cassandra. There is plenty of interplay and suspicion between the family and their connections to Nell Blackstock, the American daughter of Fred who comes to visit, and also with the strife that develops when Nelson’s team identify what really happened to Fred, whose plane was supposed to have crashed into the sea off the Norfolk coast during towards the end of the War.
At first the investigation centers on Chaz Blackstock, who owns a local pig farm on one of the abandoned airfields.
Thought Chaz seems shocked at first that Uncle Fred’s body has turned up, Nelson is convinced that Chaz maybe knew the plane was there all along. Ruth, meanwhile, remains haunted by the Farm’s desolate feel, the boarded up tower “like a sentry at the gate,” and the wind that blows through the iron buildings with a high keening sounds. This is a sinister, disturbing world tied to the lonely marshland where the sea comes whispering in over the flat, lonely fields.
Murder and dirty work aside, Griffiths has a knack for fleshing out her beloved characters, particularly Harry and Ruth and their constant stresses over how to raise their daughter, Katie, in such a “twenty-first century family.” Their subliminal romantic tension is well portrayed, but so is Ruth’s flirtation with Frank Barker, a good looking American academic, part of a team filming a documentary on Devil’s Hollow. Frank, Harry, and Ruth’s investigative competition adds an element of energy to the narrative that moves from Ruth’s home on the salt marches to Nelson’s precarious domestic existence in which his wife, Michelle, doubts her marriage. Also reappearing
are a very pregnant Judy, who is about to give birth to druid Cathbad’s baby. and DC Frank Clough, who has a much larger role to play in this outing, unexpectedly falling for Cassandra Blackstock with devastating and dangerous consequences.
With spirits appearing in the dark dead of night, a whole heap of Blackstock family skeletons are rising to the surface, metaphorically leaching up through the ancient family graveyard that circles the vast estate. And what of Devil’ s Hollow? On stormy nights, strange lights are seen as the dead try to find their way home. Then there’s the bearded man that Ruth spies, an Ancient Mariner type who spends his days staring up at Blackstock House. Everyone is wary of loopy Old George, who tells them how the sea wants the Blackstock Lands back, how one day it “will come for us all.” Sure enough, for the water-bound inhabitants of Blackstock (including a trapped and terrified Ruth and Judy), the stench of murder will surely follow them even after the torrential rains stop falling.
Again, the series’ strength is the colorful Norfolk atmosphere--the salt marshes, the many gloomy, ghost-filled rooms of Blackstock Hall, the fields with their long buried airman lurking in every corner, and the ghost of elderly Mrs. Blackstock, Old George’s longdead mother, who once said that the sea would “get her in the end.” Mrs. Blackstock is presumably still out there, wailing in the darkness “with whitened bones and hair like green seaweed.”
From sprites and nixes to the ghosts of dead children singing under the sea, the real drama is still the tenuous, loyal connection between Harry and Ruth in a love that simmers and shines but--at least for now--comes without the possibility of fulfillment.