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Four Trowels

THE HOUSE AT SEA'S END

By: Elly Griffith
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company: New York
2011 (HC)

The third Ruth Galloway archaeology mystery is an atmospheric tale set on the bleak English Norfolk coast.  The settings for the two previous novels (the saltmarshes in The Crossing Places and the darkly sinister Woolmarket Street Victorian mansion in The Janus Stone) were as key to the plot development as the human characters, and the eponymous House at Sea’s End is no different.   

A team of archaeologists from the University of North Norfolk discover human bones while conducting a survey at Broughton Sea’s End.  Erosion of the beachfront and the sandstone cliffs overhead has exposed the long-buried bodies.  Ruth Galloway, the University’s forensic archaeologist, recently returned from maternity leave after the birth of her daughter Kate, identifies six adult male bodies in the eroding gap along the shore below the brooding House at Sea’s End.  She establishes that they are not ancient burials, but rather recent – perhaps seventy years or so – and their hands have been bound and they have shot execution-style.  This brings in the Norfolk police and emotional challenges for Ruth, primarily in the person of DCI Harry Nelson, who is the married (but not to Ruth) father of baby Kate.  In the early course of their investigation, Ruth and DCI Nelson interview the master of Sea’s End House, the redoubtable MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Jack Hastings.  He knows nothing of the bodies found below his 1930s-era baronial estate, but he does intimately know the history of the house and surrounding community; seven decades earlier marked the early days of World War II and the feared invasion of Britain by the Nazis.  Jack’s father, Keaton “Buster” Hastings was apparently something of a village martinet, and in his capacity as captain of the Home Guard, he and his stalwart band of those local men too old or too young to serve in the uniformed services viewed themselves as the nation’s bulwark against Nazi invasion. 

When the two remaining members of the Home Guard—both octogenarians by now—die within weeks of each other under somewhat questionable circumstances; when isotopic analysis suggest the victims’ remains were those of men who had lived in Germany; and when a young German historian researching a rumored “invasion” of the Norfolk by Nazis in 1940 is found in the surf below Sea’s End House, stabbed to death, Harry Nelson and Ruth begin to question whether men are being murdered today to keep the secret of a heinous war crime committed seventy years earlier.  Their search for the truth leads Ruth into grave personal danger and may possibly even threaten the life of the infant Kate. 

Elly Griffiths has written another masterful novel of mystery and violent passions whose roots are firmly planted in the past.   She masterfully works in a knowledgeable and credible description of the excavation of the burials that are threatened by the imminent destruction of the site by the on-rushing tide; she treats with great sensitivity and realism the challenges Ruth faces as a single mother and the reluctant participant in a doomed love affair; and she provides a compelling back-story of agonizing loss and an insatiable thirst for revenge from Ruth’s early years as a forensic archaeologist in the killing fields of Bosnia in the 1990s. 

Four trowels for this masterful work and I wait with great anticipation for the forthcoming A Room Full of Bones

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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.