Forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway is called in when bones are discovered during building works under the Guildhall in Norfolk. The bones are very white & smooth. Are they medieval, as Ruth expects, or more recent? Architect Quentin Swan just wants to get on with his project but forensic tests reveal that the bones could be less than 10 years old & they may have been boiled in a pot. Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson & his team – DS Judy Johnson, Dave Clough & Tanya Fuller – are investigating the bones but current cases take priority.
Barbara Murray, a homeless woman, has disappeared & her friend, Eddie (known unkindly as Aftershave Eddie), asks Nelson to find her. When Eddie & another homeless man, Bilbo, are murdered, stabbed while they slept, the search for Barbara takes on more urgency. Then, a young mother, Sam Foster-Jones, disappears from her home in the early evening, leaving her four children behind. When Dave Clough’s partner, Cassandra Blackstock, also disappears after a rehearsal of a play, an experimental version of Alice in Wonderland, the team begin to look for connections between the three missing women. A drop-in centre for the homeless, run by a born-again Christian & his wife, which also runs a mother’s group seems to connect all the victims & then there are rumours of an underground community, living in the tunnels under the city. Could the bones under the Guildhall, the murdered men & missing women be connected?
I love this series. Even more than the mystery plot, I love the characters. Ruth is a single mother in her 40s. Her daughter, Kate, the result of a brief affair with Nelson, is now six years old. I enjoy the detail of Ruth’s work at the University, the office politics of her slimy boss, Phil, & the wonder she feels at Kate, so confident, so different in personality from herself, as she grows up in their remote house on the Saltmarsh. Ruth still feels uncertain about her abilities as a mother, whether it’s at the school gate with the other parents or when Kate is offered a part in Cassandra’s play. There’s also a significant strand of the plot that takes Ruth back to her parents. Their evangelical beliefs alienated Ruth for years but the birth of Kate brought them closer. Ruth & Nelson’s relationship is still very tentative. His marriage survived their brief affair but his wife, Michelle, almost had an affair with one of his colleagues & their relationship has become distant & very careful. Nelson sees Kate regularly but he & Ruth try to keep a certain distance because of his marriage. Michelle knows about Kate but their daughters don’t & this is becoming difficult.
Judy Johnson’s relationship with Cathbad, lab assistant & Druid, has settled down & Cathbad is the main carer for their two children. Judy is a compassionate, strong woman & I loved her investigations into Barbara’s disappearance. Clough is as insensitive & judgmental as ever but his edges have been softened by his relationship with Cassandra & the birth of their son. Tanya is an ambitious young woman, eager to make her mark & the new boss, Superintendent Jo Archer, is the kind of career police officer that infuriates Nelson. He feels threatened by her emphasis on reports & efficiency & is offended to be sent on a speed awareness course, suspecting that Archer is looking for an excuse to push him into retirement or at least keep him chained to a desk & away from active investigating. The solution to the mystery is based on solid police work & a flash of inspiration from Ruth. The investigations into the homeless community, the stories of Barbara, Eddie & Bilbo, as well as the people who try to care for them, was fascinating. The book ends with a significant moment that hints at personal turmoil to come for Ruth & Nelson in the next book & I can hardly bear to wait another year to discover what happens!
I read The Chalk Pit thanks to a review copy from NetGalley.