[Dr Ruth Galloway is in Italy, and is going to feature in a TV programme. The director of the programme is coming to meet her.]
‘That’s Daniella,’ says Angelo, leaning out of the window. ‘I’ll go down.’
In the silence that follows his departure, Elsa looks encouragingly at Ruth. ‘Angelo is a good man,’ she says, ‘But he needs someone.’
Don’t we all, thinks Ruth.
Daniella di Martile is another scarily slim, attractive woman. She’s wearing a sleeveless yellow dress and looks not unlike Audrey Hepburn. Why are all Italian women so thin, thinks Ruth. You’d think all that pasta would be fattening, but maybe they don’t have thirds plus whatever their children leave on their plates too. Ruth has plenty of time to admire Daniella’s figure as she prowls around the room, looking for camera angles.
commentary: In a complete change of scene, Dr Ruth and entourage head off for Italy. For various reasons (very slightly contrived, but who cares?) she and Kate and Shona and Louis, and then later Nelson and Cathbad, all turn up in a small town called Castello Degli Angeli, an hour from Rome. It is a beautiful walled town, and Kate and Shona have an apartment set in the walls. And so we have archaeological researches, a mystery, the usual mayhem, a handsome Italian academic, an earthquake, a link back to difficult times in WW2. It is an elaborate plot that certainly sustains the reader’s interest, and the description of summer life in the town is beautifully done. There is a parallel story going on back in North Norfolk, involving a criminal from Nelson’s past and a threat that may or may not be serious. If you thought the personal lives of the characters had reached their peak last time, prepare for more big big developments…
Rather than describe the plot further (if you’re a fan you’ll read it, if you haven’t tried the series you should start at Book 1) I decided to try to analyse why these books work so well for me, what it is that makes them rise so far above most of the competition. Bear with me, I’m working this out as I go along…
This is the tenth book in the series - they are all over the blog - and I have loved every one of them without reservation. Dr Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson are my favourite sleuthing pair, and Nelson is my favourite policeman, the thinking woman’s detective crush. These books have so much to offer – I love the historical details, and the rounded characters: although Ruth is definitely the protagonist, others get their point of view, and everyone is presented as having normal faults – but they are not judged. The books are also hilariously funny, with the characters’ interactions working in a way we understand after 10 books. And Elly Griffiths does all this without having undue gruesomeness or those horrible descriptions of violence to women that are so prevalent: there are murders, but they are not sickening, though these books are anything but cozy. I love Griffiths’ basically liberal, good-hearted view of the world.
Her character portrayal is wonderful: I would often resist descriptions like that above – women thinking about her weight – but Ruth is merely being realistic and observational and funny, there is no element to dislike here,no alarm bells. And over and over again in the books I admire the way the author gives people real, inconsequential thoughts: she gets inside heads as varied as Cathbad, everyone’s favourite druid, and Dave the (apparently) archetypal tough policeman.
She features people who don’t usually appear in this kind of (for want of better words) intellectual, or literary-minded mystery – certainly not in key roles. Harry and Michelle are a fascinating couple, because they are so normal, so apparently straightforward: this is no Morse, Michelle is a hairstylist, she is no Ruth, but they are lovely, written in a totally unpatronizing way, without the need to suddenly make them start reading Proust or learning Ancient Greek. Nelson is unreconstructed, he is a good man, although the jury is out on whether he is actually sexist, but what he is NOT, is, manipulated by the author to show some different and unconvincing side of him. He is one of the most rounded and real characters I have ever read. And Michelle too – one of my favourite bits of the entire oeuvre comes in a short story Griffiths wrote about Ruth at Christmas (a sweet seasonal gem that I re-read every year):
[Ruth] suddenly feels a great affection for Michelle. In fact, she almost wishes that she could spend Christmas with her. Michelle would cook for her and buy her stocking presents.This is plainly ridiculous – Ruth is a grown woman with a child, and Michelle is her rival in love, but this reader knew exactly what she meant, it was one of those weird random thoughts that real people have, and the glamorous Michelle is a truly nice woman, and it must be great to be her daughter.
These books are flatout terrific novels, and I hope they go on forever – though am really wondering what comes next for the main characters after a dramatic ending…
Funerals and graves feature a lot in the book, so (given the title) the two pictures of graveyard angels, by the ever-excellent Perry Photography, seem perfect.
I keep using the word real in this post: Castello degli Angeli was so vivid in the book that I was secretly surprised at the end to find it doesn’t exist. The lower picture shows Arpino, a real place in the right area.