Imagine Barbara Havers (the awkward, overweight, dogged police detective created by Elizabeth George) as an archaeology professor, and you've got the main character of The Crossing Places. Author Elly Griffiths has created a fictional English coastal town with a saltmarsh, ancient burial and ritual sites, and bones popping out of the peat.
Ten years apart, two young girls have disappeared from under their families' noses in the town, and DI Harry Nelson has prematurely aged trying to find them. He asks Ruth Galloway, the Barbara Havers-like character, to help identify whether some bones a hiker discovered in the saltmarsh are recent or ancient. They turn out to be about two thousand years old, but Ruth becomes involved in the ongoing investigation anyway. That's because Harry has received a slew of letters purporting to be from the kidnapper, giving teasing hints, laden with mythological and literary references, about where the bodies of the two girls are buried. Given her background, Ruth is asked to see if she can figure out the meaning of the letters.
Griffiths fleshes out Ruth by referring to the idyllic summer when Ruth first came to the saltmarsh as a young archaeology student on a dig. She found love, friendship, and intellectual challenge then. It is many years later and love has fled, her university job is beset by political maneuvering and personal ennui, and her family is a curse not a blessing. But the saltmarsh has not deserted or disappointed her. It is literally at her doorstep, because she's moved into one of the lonely cottages that abut it.
Okay, at this point, I am screaming, move to another town, don't open the door, don't walk on the marsh at night, and all the things you yell at the foolish heroines in the scream-fest movies. She doesn't hear me any better than the others did. Ruth does not move, and she does open the door, walk on the marsh at night, and let her cat wander around outside after she has been given ample reason not to do this. Perhaps the cat is the least of her worries, as it seems that the kidnapper and potential killer knows about her involvement and disapproves … strongly.
Although the town and ritual site are make-believe, the archaeology behind it is real. A seahenge made of up-turned trees (unlike the henge made of stone that is way more famous in England) was found in a saltmarsh in England. Griffiths has set her imagination loose on this real discovery to bring us a pretty good thriller with an interestingly eccentric main character. I liked Ruth, even though she was a little too whiny at times. That doesn’t stop me from looking forward to more of her adventures. And, hey, nobody's perfect!