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Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths

Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 384 pages, $27

This is the sixth book in the Elly Griffiths’ series starring Dr. Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist and professor, in King’s Lynn, England. Ruth is the mother of a toddler daughter, whose father is DCI Harry Nelson of the King’s Lynn police. He is married and the father of older children. Shona, Ruth’s vivid and vibrant best friend, is living with Phil, the arrogant and conservative head of Ruth’s department, and they have a baby. It would be harder to find a more incongruous couple. Druid and scientist Cathbad (real name Michael Malone) is also Ruth’s good friend. Although there are many regulars in Griffiths’ cast, these are the mainstays.

Several of Griffiths’ stories in the series have to do with children in danger, either ancient children or modern-day ones, but her series is actually quite gentle. (She has added more touches of humor.) The Outcast Dead has several child-in-danger stories. I’m adding this note because several customers at MBTB assiduously avoided this type of book, no matter how mild.

Ruth has been tapped to take part in a television series with the dramatic title of “Women Who Kill,” as good publicity for her university. The focus of the show will be the recently discovered bones of “Mother Hook.” Ruth is involved in that dig and, it turns out, she is a natural in front of the camera.

Rhymes about Mother Hook were used to scare children into submission. Legend has it that she takes little children, kills them, and sells their bodies to resurrection men. Brrrr. But the American historian, Frank Barker, brought in to advise and appear on the show, believes that Jemima Green, Mother Hook’s real name, was innocent and wrongly executed during the years of Victoria’s reign.

At the same time, DCI Nelson has a case of a dead child. Was he murdered by his mother or father? All initial evidence points to a natural cause, but something doesn’t seem right to Nelson. Then a toddler is kidnapped. Is it related to the baby’s death? Just to confuse the issue, all the people involved have common connections. 

If Ruth and Frank solve the mystery of Mother Hook (so-called because an industrial accident amputated Jemima’s hand, with its subsequent replacement by a hook), how will that help solve the kidnappings? (Yes, yet another child is kidnapped.)

What makes Griffiths’ books so solidly readable is her characterizations. She makes even the most woo-woo (Cathbad) and outrageous (Shona) character seem human and accessible. Ruth is a complex woman, whose visages as a mother and a professional are at odds with each other. She never thought she’d have an affair with a married man. She never thought she would be a mother. When Frank seems attracted to her, she fusses over how much of herself she has left to give. She doesn’t have all the answers, but optimistically perseveres with the struggle. Some nights the toast burns, and sometimes it doesn’t.

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