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Four Trowels

A DYING FALL

By: Elly Griffiths
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers:  New York
2013 (HC)

Elly Griffiths continues to excel as an accomplished mystery novelist in this, her fifth Ruth Galloway narrative.  Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway’s hectic after-work schedule is interrupted by a call from an old college chum, who informs her that a fellow University College London classmate, Daniel Golding, has died tragically in a house fire in Lytham, near Blackpool in the far north of England.  The news saddens Ruth more than she expects—Dan Golding was the swash-buckling-Indiana-Jones-most-likely-to-succeed member of their band of archaeologists-in-training; yet apparently his career had led him to Pendle University in Lytham, an obscure second-rate institution—and ultimately to his untimely death ignominiously caused by faulty wiring. 

But the very next day she receives a letter from Dan Golding, forwarded by her university, and obviously sent just prior to his death.  In it he excitedly tells of a significant archaeological discovery he has made near Ribchester, a rich Roman site in the Lancashire District.  He makes an oblique reference to the Raven King and beseeches her to come and give him a second opinion on the bones he has unearthed.  He closes by confessing that the situation is “sensitive,” and that he is very afraid. 

Because of this obvious but unnamed fear, Ruth asks her friend and one-time lover DCI Harry Nelson if his old colleagues in the Blackpool police department—Harry was born and bred in that area and served there before transferring to his present position in Norfolk—have further information on Dan Golding’s death.  Nelson reports back that indeed there are important additional details—Dan’s death is now a murder inquiry because he was locked in his burning house from the outside and his mobile telephone and laptop have gone missing. 

Coincident with gaining this startling information,  Ruth receives a call from Clayton Henry, Dan Golding’s department chair at Pendle  University, who urges her to come to help identify the burial remains from Dan’s excavation—the very same request Dan had made of her in his letter.  Ruth determines that she owes it to Dan’s memory and takes off for the northern climes with her neo-Druid friend Cathbad, and her daughter Kate.  Harry Nelson fortuitously plans a vacation with his wife Michelle, to visit his mother in Blackpool as well as his in-laws.  That his daughter Kate might be in harm’s way as Ruth heads into the teeth of a crime scene gives Nelson no small incentive to fulfill his family obligations; and this is without the knowledge that Ruth has received two phantom text messages, warning her to stay away from Pendle! 

Pendle University is every bit as depressing as Ruth had imagined, but Clayton Henry does tell of a truly exciting discovery made by Dan Golding and his small crew.  They had unearthed the sarcophagus of a 5th Century AD warrior buried with great ceremony within a temple dedicated to the Romano-Celtic god Bran (the Raven King)    The inscription on the tomb read “Rex Arthurus.  Briannorum Rex”—King Arthur.  King of the Britons!    

Elly Griffith’s weaves a sinuous plot, following the inquiries and discoveries of her protagonists.  Ruth discovers that the human skeleton unearthed by Dan Golding and deposited at the high-tech laboratory of CNN Forensics, has been replaced by a false set of remains.  The only hope for any sort of identification rests with a few samples sent to a U.S. lab for DNA analysis.  Harry Nelson learns from his local police contacts that an active campus cell of neo-Nazi white supremacists, self-styled as the White Hand, may well be responsible for Dan’s murder.  Cathbad visits an old friend and fellow neo-Druid, Pendragon, who lives in near-monastic isolation on Pendle Hill.  His normally serene friend is living in terror, much as Dan Golding had, and it’s because of his former affinity to the White Hand—not because of their white supremacist views but because of their reverence for King Arthur and the old gods of pagan Britain.   

These separate but intertwined threads of inquiry lead Ruth, Nelson and Cathbad ever closer to the secrets underlying the link between Dan Golding’s murder and his spectacular archaeological discovery.  But confounding their search for the murderer is the realization that Dan Golding, the man befriended and loved by all who knew him, was in fact despised by those very same friends and lovers—and everyone of them seemed capable of murder. 

Elly Griffiths’ A Dying Fall earns an easy four trowels!

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.