[Cathbad is looking for a cat in a churchyard]
He walks along the church path, the frost crunching under his feet.
And then he sees it. A tombstone near the far wall, glowing white in the moonlight, and a woman standing beside it. A woman in white robes and a flowing blue cloak. As Cathbad approaches, she looks at him, and her face, illuminated by something stronger than natural light, seems at once so beautiful and so sad that Cathbad crosses himself.
‘Can I help you?’ he calls. His voice echoes against stone and darkness. The woman smiles – such a sad, sweet smile – shakes her head and starts to walk away, moving very fast through the gravestones towards the far gate.
[Later, when a murder is being investigated, the police visit the Slipper Chapel]
Father Bill looks more worried than ever. The statue of the Virgin seems to be looking down on him, almost with embarrassment. She’s a definite presence in the room, over six foot of painted plaster, blonde hair, blue cloak…
‘We get a lot of strange people,’ says Father Bill. ‘This is a shrine after all.’
commentary: This is the eighth in Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series (several of them have been on the blog, along with two from her other series, the Mephisto books) and this one is as good as ever. The setting is particularly interesting: the religious pilgrimage destination of Walsingham, with its strange history and customs. Modern-day goings-on are linked with religious apparitions in the past. There are dead bodies of young women.
It’s a good and engaging plot, but as ever what I enjoy most is the characters: Harry Nelson, my favourite policeman of all time. Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist and woman after our own hearts. Catbhad, everyone’s favourite druid. As in:
‘There’s a man asking to see you. Looks a bit of a nutter, but he says he knows you.’And:
‘Cathbad,’ says Clough, without looking round.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a conventional family home, that is until Cathbad answers the door in his wizard’s robes, accompanied by a bull-terrier wearing a bandana.[A lot of people don’t like crime stories written in the historic present, and I’m not a huge fan myself, but Griffiths gets away with it, and I would encourage potential readers not to be put off by this.]
There is a lot of discussion of religious matters, done in a fair-minded and respectful way – though as ever there are some good jokes:
‘It’s a pilgrimage,’ says Father Bill… ‘It’s to seek forgiveness for the sins of students everywhere.’Although Ruth and Nelson are the key characters, I like the way Griffiths steps back from her characters to be ironic about all of them:
‘That’s a tall order,’ says Nelson.
They had got into an enjoyable discussion about wrongful arrests and general police brutality when Nelson spoilt it all by strolling up looking like a thundercloud.The characters look back at the Zefirelli Jesus of Nazareth – with good-looking, blue-eyed Robert Powell playing Jesus. I remember that when the casting was announced, the actor was ‘living in sin’ with one of Pan’s People (troupe of dancers from Top of the Pops) and they felt they had to sneak off to a register office to get married in a hurry… I think Griffiths is a bit younger than I am, so probably wasn’t aware of these machinations – she would surely have included this detail if she’d known it.
I loved the combination of a real place, a look at religion, AND my favourite crime characters. I hope Elly Griffiths will go on writing these books forever.
The pictures are from guides to Walsingham.