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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths (hardcover, $26)

Dr. Ruth Galloway, a forensic anthropologist in England, finds a storyline worthy of her in this second book in Elly Griffiths' series. The Crossing Places, the first book to feature Ruth, was well written but lacked a tightly worked ending. Griffiths has remedied that with this commendable follow-up.

Ruth is a slightly overweight, out of shape academic. Because of circumstances depicted in the first book, Ruth is now slightly overweight, out of shape, and pregnant. Since there is no possibility of winding up with the father of her child, she chooses to ignore her pregnancy at first, concentrating instead on winding up her school year and discerning whether a modern crime has been committed when a child's bones are discovered at a construction site.

Among the fine characters that populate this book are Harry Nelson, the police detective she met in the first book; her friend Cathbad, a Druid/amateur archaeologist/sensitive soul; and Shona, her irrepressible BFF. They are each given their own strong personalities and we say, "Yay!"

Griffiths draws an atmospheric picture of the area around Norfolk, with its heavy mists and lonely stretches. In addition to the main mystery of the victim's identity is a sedimentary mystery, which gives Griffiths a chance to gently educate us in the archaeology and history of an ancient land that has seen many changes.

Humor is not a main ingredient in this book, but there is some and it is well placed. From the slapstick (DCI Nelson accusing himself of being unsophisticated: "'You know how thick I am. I don't even eat yoghurt because it's got culture in it.'") to the gently acerbic ("Eventually a teenage boy masquerading as a doctor appears, examines her head and tells her she can go home."), Griffiths gives us a smile just before she encases us in darkness. And there is darkness. This is not a tidy Agatha Christie drawing room mystery, but rather one that uncovers the sordid and grotesque nature of a hidden black heart.

Griffiths' dialogue, her pacing, and her humorous and human touches, especially concerning Ruth's pregnancy, are spot on.

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