Griffiths resurrects the past with the eerie myths of child murders and the contemporary madness of dead babies in her latest thriller featuring forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway and Detective Inspector Harry Nelson—she who inhabits a cottage the edge of a salt marsh, he of Norwich, where his team has just arrived at the home of a woman whose baby has mysteriously died. There would be fewer questions had this woman not already lost two infants to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The loss of the third, David, strains credibility for a detective who knows too intimately the ways of the world.
Unaware as yet of this latest death and how it will impact her life as events unfold, Ruth Galloway has recently unearthed what may be the skeleton of Jemima Green, the infamous “Mother Hook” who was hanged for the murder of children in her care circa 1867, spawning a frightful nursery rhyme meant to encourage children to obey lest Mother Hook get them. The iron hook on Green’s wrist was fashioned after a farming accident, the telltale clue that cements the belief that the bones uncovered at Norwich Castle indeed belong to Jemima Green. Immediately, Ruth is informed by her Head of Department, Phil Trent, that the television show “Women Who Kill” is interested in the find and would like to feature the discovery on their program. Like it or not, Ruth will be seeing herself on the screen.
Griffiths mixes the lives of Galloway and Nelson though the bond forged by their daughter, Kate. Although Nelson is married with two daughters and Galloway remains single, their tie through Kate is a fact of life, a link that draws Harry back to Ruth even more touchingly in a novel that focuses on the fate of a dead infant. While sympathetic supporters of the grieving mother, Liz Donaldson, gather outside the station, new information offers another lead, the case becoming more complicated by the day. When the youngest child of a wealthy family is taken and a note left by “the Childminder,” the police arrive in force to recover the infant, scouring the neighborhood. Ruth is vaguely aware of the kidnapping but seriously embroiled in her role as TV star, meeting the director and stars (including a handsome American historian Frank Barker who may provide romantic grist for the future).
Steeped in the folklore of Mother Hook for the coming production, Ruth doesn’t become significantly involved until a second kidnapping after the first is recovered: one-year-old Michael, son of Detective Judy Johnson and her husband, Darren—also possibly the child of Ruth’s druid friend, Cathbad, a familiar figure from previous Galloway adventures. Suddenly the case gets personal. Judy, one of their own, is in agony over her missing baby, the detectives unable to discover any links to “the Childminder” who has snatched the boy. Ruth cannot help but make the connections between the kidnapper and Mother Hook, the nature of a woman who would take a child away from its mother, albeit in entirely different circumstances.
The unique twist in this story is Frank Barker’s belief that Mother Hook may have been innocent of the crimes for which she was hanged. In an era of superstition and grinding poverty, unwed mothers could not keep their children. “Resurrectionists” were all too willing to make away with the unwanted, and Jemima Green, with her grotesque iron appendage, was an easy target. This sense of history shadows the novel—not unusual in Galloway tales, but with a particular relevancy as the nightmare plays out and the culprit is cornered, Judy tearing onto the scene to claim her boy from danger. Somehow Ruth has landed in the middle of it all, her relationship with Nelson still in a muddle (though Barker hovers on the horizon), the harrowing loss of a child put to rest as the mystery is solved. This is one of the author’s best efforts to date, filled with unanticipated twists and the poignant moments of affection and frustration between Ruth and Harry. The added piquancy of the daughter they share reveals the complications of the years ahead, a love accepted yet put aside for the sake of others. Perhaps Mother Hook is watching over them all.