Note: Spoilers for previous books in this series
The fourth book in this charming crime series begins six months after the end of the third book. In the first three books, we met Ruth Galloway, an 40-ish overweight forensic archeologist at the (fictional) University of North Norfolk, and Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson of the Norfolk Police. The two teamed up to solve several crimes since Ruth is an expert on bones, and now Ruth is seconded to the Serious Crime Unit, which is headed by Nelson.
Ruth has been summoned to the local Smith Museum for the opening of a coffin that has been excavated and is believed to hold the bones of the 14th Century Bishop Augustine Smith, an ancestor of the museum’s owner, Lord Danforth Smith. When she arrives, however, she finds that the curator, Neil Topham, is lying dead beside the coffin. Further, there are threatening letters in Neil’s desk drawer. The museum houses a great many bones of Aboriginal Australians. A group calling itself the Elginists, dedicated to the repatriation of sacred artefacts, are believed to be behind the letters; they have also written to Lord Smith. They insist the remains of the ancestors must be returned “so they may enter the Dreaming [i.e., spirit world] and so complete the cycle of nature.” Otherwise, “The Great Snake will have its revenge.”
Nelson is called to the scene, taking a break from his work trying to figure crack a drug-smuggling ring in the area. When drugs are also found in Topham’s desk, Nelson senses a tie between the two cases.
Meanwhile, this is the first time he and Ruth have seen each other in six months. At her daughter Kate’s christening, Nelson’s wife Michelle figured out that Nelson was the father of Ruth’s baby, and insisted Nelson agree never to see Ruth or Kate again, except as it was necessary to see Ruth for work. Nelson told Ruth of this development, and then complied with Michelle’s wishes. Ruth was very hurt, but also did not want to ruin Nelson’s marriage.
Ruth has mixed feelings for Nelson, a combination of irritation, respect, and attraction. She refuses to consider whether or not she loves him. In any event, she is seeing someone occasionally – the archeologist Max Grey. She also has the frequent company of Cathbad, a modern-day druid and a bit of a “mystic archeologist” as well as Kate’s godfather and friend to both her and Nelson.
Nelson also is not clear on his feelings for Ruth. He loves his family, but he also can’t stop thinking about Ruth. And of course he loves his newest child. It’s all too painful to think about, so he tries not to do so.
Interesting subplots also concern complicated relationships and interrelationships: a member of Nelson’s team, Detective Sergeant Judy Johnson, is engaged to be married, but is attracted to Cathbad. Another Detective Sergeant, Dave Clough, is dating an archeologist from Ruth’s team at the university. Ruth’s sort-of best friend Shona is now living with Ruth’s boss, Phil, and they are expecting a baby.
Suddenly, another person ends up dead, and Nelson himself becomes mortally ill. Both Ruth and Michelle are forced to confront uncomfortable truths, as Judy and Dave solve the crime and almost lose their own lives.
Discussion: Ruth is a lovely character, all the more likable, to my mind, for being so far from the stereotypical thin, gorgeous protagonist. The other main characters are excellently drawn with many layers, making them seem quite like real people.
Evaluation: This is a very appealing series, with well-drawn fascinating characters. I also love that one comes away from the book learning something besides how to commit a murder. (It is possible the author was inspired to write this particular book by this story from the British news in 2009 about the same issue.)
Published in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012