I started to write this review of A ROOM FULL OF BONES in exactly the same way I started my most recent review of Elly Griffiths’ work: “I’m generally a fan of Elly Griffiths …”
You can all recognize the implied “but” that is sure to follow. It’s a shame, because the first two books in the series, THE CROSSING PLACES and THE JANUS STONE, were truly excellent mysteries. The third, THE HOUSE AT SEA’S END, was strong, but introduced a confusing moral element that didn’t help the tale.
But where all these books excelled, what the author is really good at, is the dynamic arc of her characters. Forensic archaeologist Dr. Ruth Galloway is an overweight woman, but doesn’t care. She’s good at her job and while she has plenty of insecurities, she’s also strong-willed and intelligent.
Prior to this latest novel, Galloway had a fling with DCI Inspector Harry Nelson which resulted in having a child together. Nelson doesn’t want to leave his wife and Galloway is more than content to raise her daughter as a single mother. This all shows remarkable change in series characters that other novelist often don’t bother doing.
Unfortunately, there are persistent flaws in the writing. Griffiths insists on writing in the present tense, which can be very annoying. And her plots generally contain at least one very striking element, but a whole bunch of other red herrings and the like that end up just being distracting.
For instance, in A ROOM FULL OF BONES, a coffin containing the bones of a 14th-century bishop is discovered and taken to the local museum. Before the official opening of the coffin, the museum curator is found dead. Was it murder? When the coffin is eventually opened, the bishop is found to have been a female instead of a male.
See? Now that’s an interesting development.
The book takes more than 300 pages to get back to this intriguing theme, however. Instead, the focus shifts to the museum’s holdings of a vast number of Aborigine bones, collected by the current museum owner’s great grandfather. An organization called The Elginists advocates for the bones’ return to their homeland, and of course, this cause is supported by one of the author’s other main characters, the druid Cathbad.
All well and good, and while Griffiths touches on the controversial issues surrounding artifact repatriation, she doesn’t really get into the meat and bones of the arguments, leaving the reader frustrated. Finally, it turns out that the main crime is something else entirely and we’ve had to slog through a lot of spiritual mumbo-jumbo along the way that just seems mostly irrelevant.
I don’t want to put you off the series, because Griffiths really does paint interesting character portraits. Her next book, March’s A DYING FALL, may set the series aright. We’ll see. —Mark Rose