Saturday, 2 August 2014

Mystery Review: 'The Janus Stone' by Elly Griffiths

The Janus Stone (Ruth Galloway #2)
I loved ‘The Crossing Places’, the first in the series about forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, set in England’s atmospheric East Anglia. This one works almost as well - great characters, an intriguing plot and plenty of laugh-out-loud humour of the dry, British variety.
The formula here isn’t an unusual one: bones are discovered buried under a doorway, Ruth is called in to help in her professional capacity, there’s a police investigation going on led by Harry Nelson, clues and suspects are gradually uncovered as Ruth increasingly becomes the target for the murderer, culminating in a dramatic and, it has to be said, highly implausible finale. I understand why authors like to make the lead character the focus for the villain’s malevolence, but there has to be a bit more effort than this to make it plausible.

Where this book shines is in the characters. Ruth is a wonderful heroine, a perfectly sensible woman no longer in the first flush of youth, down-to-earth, unconcerned with her appearance, not dependent on a man - only her cat. In this book, the romantic entanglements take centre stage. After Ruth’s one night stand with Harry in book 1 results in Consequences, in this book she also strikes up a mini-romance with a fellow archaeologist. I began to wonder whether this series is going to end up being more about the soapy relationship dramas, with the murder being pushed into the background, but so far the balance seems to be pretty good.

Apart from Ruth, Harry begins to shine in this book, and we see more of his home life, which is rather interesting, in view of the Consequences mentioned above. Cathbad the druid with his purple cloak is a fun character, too, and I rather liked the Catholic priest that everyone is terribly suspicious of, because he just seems to be too good. Everyone assumes he must be hiding something. How cynical, and yet how true to life. The setting is less interesting this time. In the first book, the atmospheric Norfolk coast was a major element of the story, but here most of the events are set on the derelict site of a Victorian mansion, with Roman history woven into the background. A little duller, to my mind.

Biggest irritant in the book is the use of first person present tense, which had me grinding my teeth with annoyance, sometimes. For anyone who’s allergic, this would be a deal-breaker. The redeeming feature to me, which more than offsets the tense issue, is the humour, which is vintage eccentric British. The scenes in the hospital were spectacularly funny, with all three of Ruth’s male friends turning up at her bedside at once, and some perceptive observations that most of us can identify with (“…a teenage boy masquerading as a doctor…”). Although it did seem to be a particularly relaxed corner of the National Health Service, not quite as time-stretched as most of it is these days.

All in all, a pleasant read, and I’ll definitely read more of the series, but the tense annoyance, the implausible plot contrivances and the less interesting setting keep this to three stars.

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