‘Dr. Ruth Galloway’ is a mystery-series by British author Elly Griffiths. It started in 2009 and is currently 13-books deep, with a 14th scheduled for release in February 2022 and according to a recent ‘Poisoned Pen’ podcast I listened to, Griffiths thinks it’ll be a few more books and then concluded in some fashion (although she also mentioned liking Ian Rankin’s style of setting aside his ‘Inspector Rebus’ series for a number of years, and returning to a much older and much-changed Rebus for a refreshed take).
Dr. Ruth Galloway is the protagonist and she’s a forensic archaeologist at the (made-up) University of North Norfolk, with a specialty in bone excavation and examination. In the first book – ‘The Crossing Places’ – Ruth is drawn into an investigation by Norfolk’s own Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, who thinks he’s found a body in the saltmarsh, but that turns out to be an Iron Age preserved corpse. Still, Ruth gets drawn into the larger picture which sees Nelson trying to find a missing child gone 10-years, and a more recent missing child likely connected to the first.
This first case is already of vital importance to Nelson who has been haunted by it for these many years when he crosses paths with Dr. Ruth Galloway, whose particular way of seeing the past and digging up long-dead secrets seems to open up new leads and leeway’s in the case.
Now, this is important because I want to drop a semi-big spoiler here when I say that by the end of that first book, Ruth is pregnant with Nelson’s child after a one-night-stand borne out in the heady aftermath of a crushing and gruelling discovery in the case. From here on in, Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson become the main players in this series – it’s told in omniscient third-person, and though we mostly stick with Ruth’s POV we also get a fair chunk of each book told through Nelson’s eyes and those of his closest police officers – namely Dave ‘Cloughie’ Clough and Judy Johnson, so we can see various cases unfold at a closer level. There’s also a local Norfolk Druid called Cathbad who befriends both Nelson and Ruth, and others on the team, and also becomes integral to the series and entwined in the lives of these characters.
And of course, the whole series is tightly woven around the increasingly complicated relationship of Ruth and Nelson – who share a child.
Nelson is married to his wife of 20-years, Michelle, and they have two teenage daughters – Laura and Rebecca. Though Nelson forthrightly admits in interior dialogue that he’s had two previous ‘flings’ before cheating on Michelle with Ruth, he realises fairly quickly that there’s something different about this encounter, beyond the obvious conception of a child together. Nelson is a no-nonsense Blackpool original who is from a bygone era of policing. He doesn’t have a lot of time initially for Ruth’s world of academia and ‘Guardian-reading’ outlook on the world. Furthermore – and as he (annoyingly) mentions repeatedly throughout the series; Ruth is not his type. She’s 39 when they meet (Nelson is a few years older), stubbornly single living on the edge of the saltmarsh in a stone cottage; she’s overweight and ‘untidy’ (which I secretly suspect is fatphobic code for personally ‘slovenly’?), doesn’t wear make-up and doesn’t care what people – men especially – think of her, and least of all Nelson. All of which he finds oddly, confusingly, enticing.
Ruth and Nelson do become a focal point for the series, and this will – I warn you – both frustrate and delight. Griffiths, in trying to capture Nelson’s gruff and non-PC generational masculinity often devolves to comparing Ruth and Michelle on these binaries of “hot” and “not” – he and Michelle may have been married for 20-years, but Michelle (who is a hairdresser, and I suspect there’s huge trope and cliché playing here too) isn’t at all interested in Nelson’s policing, her domain is domesticity and beauty … but in Ruth, Nelson increasingly finds a force to be reckoned with, a woman who he finds funny and intellectually stimulating – not least when they’re working a case together. But a lot of time in the book we’re subjected to Nelson being constantly ~BaFfLeD~ at the thought of a fat, non-blonde and beautiful woman being of interest to him because she has a personality and he likes talking to her. Shock. Horror.
From book 1 when Ruth and Nelson’s baby in conceived to current book #13 – the series spans a decade, to their child growing to be 10-years-old, and in the forthcoming 14th book the timeline of the series will bring us into the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic raging around the world in 2020. Book 13 set in September 2019, even enticingly has Ruth at her University getting a lesson on “remote-learning” and the foreshadowing from a fellow lecturer warning that one day all classes could be conducted via Zoom-meetings. I actually love this aspect of the series, that the timeline is very closely packed and often-times one book’s ending will be the beginning of the next. And very occasionally we’ll get a leap-ahead by 2-years to mostly speed up relationship complications, or to age Ruth’s child.
I do love this series for that too – for Elly Griffiths writing a most unconventional of female ‘detective’ hero in Ruth Galloway. Not just because she’s older, fat and otherwise living a spinster life (these characters abound, especially in UK-crime; just think ‘Vera’) but because she actively dismisses the thought of living with a man (even when she begins pining for Nelson and something more with him), she’s a woman repeatedly shown to have a healthy sexual appetite and who is not short of enthusiastic partners. All in all; she’s a refreshing read and savvy hero to get behind, even as her more celebratory aspects often cast an even more dubious light on her affection for Nelson (he who cannot fathom being attracted to a fat women he enjoys conversing with.) I also love that as she digs deeper into her role as single-mother, this too becomes an integral part of the sleuthing and crime-solving; juggling childcare and constantly worrying at putting herself in danger if she is the sole-provider and only parent for her child.
I also like that Ruth presents a flip from the typical (and mostly American) convention of gruff older male heroes in crime-fiction, who inexplicably entice a bevvy of beautiful young women to their beds, despite being ‘slovenly’ and grumpy. Ruth is almost that archetype gender-flipped and it is surprisingly refreshing, even as it’s occasionally regressive too. Case in point is how she’s often pitted (in his mind at least) against Nelson’s beautiful, blonde wife Michelle – a woman who even her own daughter at one point remarks, has a tendency to brush hard topics aside and try to forget them, certainly not think about them. This is contrast to Ruth, who often remarks that it’s her job to excavate the past and constantly examine it – I much prefer to think of Ruth and Michelle in these world outlook binaries, rather than physical ones.
I also think the series is incredibly clever for the way Elly Griffiths essentially takes one careless act – Harry and Ruth sleeping together during one night of shared misery, conceiving a child by happy accident – and then the rest of the series is essentially the repercussions and fissures of that moment constantly playing out and reverberating around Nelson and Ruth’s lives. This is crime – in a nutshell, is it not? One devastating act that has a ripple-effect on life in so many ways, and affects so many people. That is the basis of Griffith’s series, more so than Ruth’s forensic archaeology constantly being needed, is the fact that she will always be in Nelson’s life now, and he in hers.
For this reason too, the series is frustrating. Because that fracture – in Nelson’s happy home-life, and Ruth’s seemingly determined singledom – resulting in a child they share together; that fracture existing and constantly teetering, is essentially what the series is built on. Fractures are arguably the basis of crime-fiction too; series in which we get to know and care for characters and want to see them safe and happy, that by definition would disarm the genre in which they exist and we love reading them in. I fear that Nelson and Ruth getting together in some amalgamation of a Happily Ever After might result in a Karin Slaughter ‘Grant County’-level rupture to trigger a restart. Because there are no happy-endings in crime, right?
Well. I don’t know. Maybe Griffiths has built enough high-stakes that should Nelson and Ruth get together properly, Nelson’s world in particular would fragment and falter – he’d arguably lose a lot, to gain the love he’s seemingly craving more and more. I think it could be done, and I’ve certainly been taken in hook-line-and-sinker to this series to keep reading and hoping I’ll find it. February 2022 does indeed seem a long way away, and I miss Ruth and Nelson already after bingeing this series over one fortnight … I find myself desperate to get back to the lonely, liminal space of the saltmarshes in Norfolk, and Ruth’s cozy cottage by the sea.