In "The House at Sea's End," by Elly Griffiths, forty-year-old forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway is now a single mum. Although she adores her daughter, Kate, Ruth is tired ("sleepless nights, zombie-like days"), nervous, and feeling guilty about leaving her baby with child minders while she is at work. Along with her teaching duties at the University of North Norfolk, she occasionally helps the police with their inquiries. When someone uncovers human skeletons in a ravine, Ruth is called in to examine the remains.
Griffiths has a natural, effortless, understated, and gently humorous writing style. As always, Galloway is an endearing "Everywoman"--overweight, somewhat disorganized, and self-deprecating. Ruth cares for Kate's father, but he is off-limits, so she has decided to raise their daughter on her own. Since Ruth and Kate's dad are thrown together on a regular basis, it is likely that the truth about the baby's parentage will emerge sooner or later. This could prove awkward for all concerned.
The mystery centers on an incident that occurred during World War II, at a time when members of the "Broughton Sea's End Home Guard" were determined to protect England's mainland from Nazi invaders. Some of these elderly veterans are still alive, but an unidentified perpetrator starts killing them off; Ruth and DCI Harry Nelson wonder if someone is silencing them to keep a long-hidden secret from coming to light. On a less somber note, DS Judy Johnson is about to be married, but has she chosen the right mate? Love is in the air, but in some cases, Cupid's arrow may land a bit wide of the mark.
Griffiths juggles her lively and varied cast of characters with ease. On hand are Shona, Ruth's sassy buddy; Cathbad, a druid with a good heart and a canny mind; and Tatjana, an old friend who has come to visit Ruth. In 1996, Ruth and Tatjana had worked together in Bosnia, uncovering and identifying the remains of massacred victims of that region's tragic civil war. One of the author's themes is that, in wartime, formerly law-abiding people can turn into brutal and aggressive predators.
The author treats us to evocative descriptions of the wild and desolate coast where Ruth lives. Griffiths helps us visualize the sandstone cliffs, coves, and marshes; hear the shrill cries of the birds wheeling overhead, "their wings turned to pink by the setting sun"; and feel the pounding of the surf as it hammers against the rocks. Although the whodunit's solution is a bit rushed and somewhat contrived, this flaw does not markedly detract from the novel's appeal. Ruth Galloway fans will be pleased to see their heroine back from maternity leave, as smart, independent, courageous, and impulsive as ever.