I discovered this thriller series thanks to fellow blogger Sarah at Brainfluff, and before launching into this review I have to thank her for the post that piqued my curiosity and led me to learn more about this intriguing character.
Dr. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archeologist living on the Norfolk coast, in a bleak but suggestive area of salt marshes, strong winds and compelling Iron Age relics. In her late thirties, Ruth teaches at the nearby university and lives alone with her two cats in a cottage facing the boundary between land and sea: hers is a quiet, contented life, her seclusion a choice rather than the product of circumstances. The quiet routine is one day shattered by the visit of Chief Inspector Nelson, tasked with the investigation of a young girl’s disappearance and obsessed by a similar case from the past, one he was unable to solve: the discovery of human bones on a nearby beach compelled Nelson to seek Ruth’s help in finding out if they belong to the missing girl.
Ruth’s examination brings her to the conclusion that the remains are from the Iron Age, but still Nelson’s case haunts her, particularly because someone – probably the abductor of the first child – keeps writing taunting letters to the inspector, using terms that only someone versed in archeology would know. The parallel between the Iron Age ritual sacrifices and the mystery of the kidnapped girls preys on Ruth’s mind and she finds herself progressively more embroiled in the riddle, to the point that her life might be in danger…
I enjoyed The Crossing Places quite a bit, thanks to its many unique elements: first there is the isolated, windswept background of the Norfolk coast salt marshes – I searched the web for more information and the pictures I found showed that despite the apparent bleakness there is a sort of… savage beauty to the place, and I was able to understand Ruth’s fascination with the area, and her desire to remain immersed in such a changeable environment. This is a very atmospheric story and the salt marshes are the perfect setting for a mystery encompassing several years and developing along a very circuitous route riddled with false trails and red herrings, not unlike the treacherous paths running along the marshes.
And then there is Ruth, a very unusual heroine for the genre: she is a quiet, reserved person who has learned to deal with the vagaries of life and built herself an existence tailored on her own preferences, uncaring of the conventions and requirements of society and family. Composed and almost withdrawn, she is not however the kind of person who allows others to rule her choices, and therefore the perfect foil for the brusquely driven, almost overbearing Nelson, with whom she establishes a relationship that’s mostly based on mutual respect and the acknowledgment that their differences can complement each other rather than clash. This is portrayed quite well in the dovetailing of current police investigation and archeological research, which are not so different after all, as someone says at some point: for Ruth it’s a brief step from her study of the Iron Age girl’s remains, and the reasons for her burial in that particular site, to the burning curiosity to learn the fate of the missing girls – she knows that in each case they were sacrificed, one because of religious beliefs and the others because of someone’s twisted goals, and her inquisitive mind needs to put all the pieces together to form a complete picture. But what I liked most in Ruth’s character is that while she acknowledges that reaching one’s middle age carries its own load of regrets and missed opportunities, she totally owns her choices and has found a way to turn them into a kind of existence she can be comfortable with, if not exactly happy.
The mystery at the core of the novel is an intriguing one, particularly as it focuses on the scenes from the point of view of a girl imprisoned in what looks like a cell, both expecting and dreading the infrequent visits of her captor: it’s clear from the start where those interludes are leading, just as it’s easy to figure out who the kidnapper/killer might be, because in spite of the false trails scattered here and there the clues appear to point in that direction, but that hardly matters because the fascinating aspect of this mystery lies in the foreboding and menacing flavor of the story, enhanced by the very peculiar background in which it’s set.
The Crossing Places is a good, if sometimes imperfect story: having checked, I discovered it’s the author’s debut novel, which helps me make allowances for some of the “blemishes” I encountered along the way and to hope that some of them will be straightened out in the next works. At the start of the story we get Ruth’s physical description through one of the most abused ways, i.e. through the character looking into a mirror: I freely acknowledge that it’s one of my (too many…) pet peeves, but for some reason it never fails to bother me, because it speaks of a certain unwillingness to find other means to get that kind of description across. Then there is the detail about Ruth being slightly overweight, a detail too often repeated – to the point where it seems to define her in spite of her academical and personal achievements, as if she were more concerned with appearance than substance, in open contradiction with her otherwise well-balanced personality.
These are however minor disturbances, and they were not enough to prevent me from total immersion in the story or from looking for the next novels in the series, with the hope that some of the problems that afflict this book will be straightened out in the course of the journey.