Book Review: The Last Remains by Elly Griffiths
Archaeologist and university lecturer Dr. Ruth Galloway is used to being sent for whenever human bones are found, even before the police are called in. It helps, of course, that she has a good relationship with the local North Norfolk constabulary. One would think she’d have a great relationship however, given her long-standing romance with DCI Harry Nelson, with whom she shares their now-pre-adolescent daughter Kate. But ever since his wife Michelle decided to essentially leave him, Ruth has been inexplicably dodging having a conversation with him about their own future together.
It doesn’t help that her professional future has suddenly been put in jeopardy. The archaeology department of the University of North Norfolk is shocked to learn – via Twitter, insultingly enough–that they’ll likely be axed in the latest round of budget cuts. Unwilling to take this termination lying down, Ruth and her colleagues take the fight back to the school, appealing to the public via both social and traditional media. In an interview with a TV network, she defends her profession:
‘Archaeology is the study of ordinary people,’ says Ruth. ‘Everyday people,’ she corrects herself. ‘It’s not about kings and queens. It’s about real people living their lives. Farming, baking, mining. When we examine artefacts – see a fingerprint preserved on a Bronze Age tool or a dog’s pawprint on a Roman tile – we are linked to their lives. Norfolk has the oldest human footprints outside Africa. They were found in Happisburgh. Eight hundred thousand years old. Almost a million years old. It’s archaeologists who have helped us to understand them.’
When she finishes a cheer goes up in the background and a banner appears from the upper windows of the Natural Science block
SAVE UNN ARCH. DR RUTH ROCKS.
Ruth hopes the camera doesn’t catch her wiping her eyes.
But something even more urgent than her very life’s work soon takes up almost all her attention. A skeleton has been found bricked up in the basement of a former cafe. The investigation into this brings up a connection with a friend of both Ruth and Nelson’s. Cathbad is a self-professed druid, a colorful local character who’s married to Judy, one of Nelson’s most trusted deputies. Almost two decades ago, however, he’d been single and involved with a group of folklorists, some amateur, some academic. After a weekend excursion to the nearby Grim’s Graben, a set of prehistoric flint mines rumored to be the site of ancient lurid rituals, one of the young women in his set disappeared. Now her bones have shown up, and the notoriously mystical Cathbad is being even more vague than usual about what happened all that time ago.
Nelson takes charge on the surprisingly baffling case, hampered both by the need to bench Judy and to deal with a populace still cautiously emerging from the COVID-19 lockdowns. When Cathbad suddenly goes missing though, how far will our heroes go to find both him and the truth, even if it endangers the lives of those they love the most?
I found The Last Remains utterly absorbing from start to finish. While I’ve read and enjoyed quite a few Elly Griffiths novels, this fifteenth Ruth Galloway book was my first of this series. Even though I had no prior acquaintance with these characters, I was genuinely surprised by how invested I became in Ruth and Nelson’s relationship, despite finding their ambivalence towards commitment desperately irritating. It’s actually Cathbad who has the best advice for this romantically infuriating pair, when he asks Nelson:
[‘]Have you ever told Ruth what you think about her? What she means to you?’
‘I must have.’
‘That means you haven’t. Ruth’s life is changing. She’s having to make decisions. How can she make them if you don’t tell her what you feel?’
‘For someone who doesn’t believe in clairvoyance you’re expecting a lot of mind-reading from Ruth. She’s an academic. She needs evidence. Go and tell her that you love her.’
The relationships are so believable in all of Ms. Griffiths’ books, with this novel being no exception. I honestly went from not understanding what Ruth saw in Nelson to rooting for their relationship to overcome the plentiful obstacles strewn in their path. I can only imagine what a treat this book will be for series fans, who will surely also love the pivotal cameos from people who’ve featured in the preceding fourteen installments.
Even if you’re not familiar with the novels, you’ll likely still find the denouement of the murder mystery’s central puzzle as greatly satisfying as I did. This might not be the best place to start with the Ruth Galloway series, but it is highly entertaining and a great read all on its own.