RogerBW's Blog

A Room Full of Bones, Elly Griffiths 26 June 2023

2011 mystery, fourth in the series (police plus amateur detection). A private museum is about to open the recently-discovered coffin of a mediæval bishop, but just before the event the museum's director drops dead next to it.

That doesn't seem like a particularly criminal death, but he had a surprising amount of cocaine in his desk (which ties across to DI Nelson's major ongoing drugs case), and had been getting ominous letters from a group demanding the return of ancestral bones and threatening him with supernatural retribution. Then the museum's owner, Lord Smith, dies apparently of fright…

There's some awkwardness here. Ruth, as an expect in forensic archaeology, should already be familiar with the situation and current ethical thinking regarding human remains removed from their burial sites and questions about their return, not to mention some of the things that were done to said remains in the name of racial science; but because she has to serve as the reader's proxy for a thing the reader may not know about, she has to be shown as unreasonably ignorant of the whole business, then shocked when she finds out. This might have sat better if it had been Nelson or one of the other police characters meeting it as a new idea; they would at least plausibly not be familiar with it already.

Similarly, Ruth confidently sexes a skeleton based on a single glance at one bone characteristic, which is not a thing a professional would do. (Yeah, I know what I was taught as a medical student in 1990. If you know you are looking only at modern humans from a particular sub-population, you can be a bit faster and more confident…)

There's an actual crime story too, with something dodgy going on at Lord Smith's stables, and various people there who may be mixed up in it. And there's progress in people's personal lives, with Nelson having been forbidden by his wife from seeing Ruth (whose child he fathered), and various attempts to patch up that messy situation.

The crime and detection elements are all right, but mostly I was intrigued by the people, most of whom are plausible mixes of good and bad motivations; the series regulars are showing development, which is splendid, and I'm glad to be reading these in order rather than piecemeal. Not for the mystery purist or subject matter expert, but I'm continuing to enjoy them.

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Previous in series: The House at Sea's End | Series: Ruth Galloway | Next in series: Ruth's First Christmas Tree

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