Fresh Meat: The House at Sea’s End by Elly Griffiths

The House at Seas EndRuth Galloway has just returned from maternity leave and is struggling to juggle work and motherhood. When a team from the University of North Norfolk investigating coastal erosion finds six bodies buried at the foot of the cliff, she is immediately put on the case. DCI Nelson is investigating, but Ruth finds this more hindrance than help—Nelson is the father of her daughter, Kate. Still, she remains professional and concentrates on the case at hand. Forensic tests prove that the bodies are from Southern Europe, killed sixty years ago. Police Investigations unearth records of Project Lucifer, a wartime plan to stop a German invasion. A further discovery reveals that members of the Broughton Sea’s End Home Guard took a ’blood oath’ to conceal some deadly wartime secret. When a visiting German reporter is killed, Ruth and Nelson realise that someone is still alive who will kill to keep the secret of Broughton Sea’s End’s war years. Can they discover the truth in time to stop another murder?

The House at Sea’s End is the first Elly Griffiths novel I have read; it’s third in a series about Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist from the University of North Norfolk.  For those who worry about reading in order, there are enough references to Galloway’s previous relationship with DCI Harry Nelson that the plot’s easily comprehensible without reading the earlier books in the series.  However, I think reading the series in order would definitely have rewards, as the character relationships are complex, and it’s obvious they’ve been built steadily as the series progresses.

I really enjoyed Galloway’s internal voice, which was often humorous.  She’s well matched with Nelson, whose sarcasm was funny as well; alas, he’s married to someone else (and apparently was so even at the time of their affair).  I’m not sure, from this one novel, if they’re intended to ever be together again as lovers, but it’s clear they’ll often work together professionally.  Another important secondary character is Cathbad, a lab technician notable for being a modern pagan, and an important figure in Galloway’s life and that of her daughter.

Most of Galloway’s character arc in the novel is related to her status as a recent mother.

…she found that, increasingly, when she spoke, people tended not to hear. This was a shock for Ruth, who has been a university lecturer for all her working life. People used to pay to listen to her. Now, unless she was talking specifically about the baby, her mouth simply opened and shut like one of those nodding dogs in cars.

Galloway’s motherhood is not the plot’s focus, however; there are plenty of details of the painstaking work which will help her to solve the crime.

High tide is at six, and with the stones cleared away the sea will probably come all the way into this inlet. Time to excavate the bodies. First she takes photographs, using a measuring rod for scale. Then she draws the skeletons in plan. Finally, bone by bone, she starts on the first body. As she lifts each bone, Trace records it on the skeleton sheet and marks it with a tiny number in indelible ink….Examining the context in which a body is buried – the earth filling a grave and any objects (glass, fibres, animal bone, coins, pottery) found within that earth – is central to a forensic archaeologist’s work.

However, the blunt descriptions of excavating a crime scene contrast with atmospheric renderings of the novel’s setting.  Griffiths’ descriptions of the sea and the cliffs are timeless, or out of time perhaps.  This trick helps to effectively tie together the present-day detective work with a crime that took place more than half a century in the past.  From its description, the house that serves as a central focus for the story could just as easily have appeared in a fairy tale.

She loves the house, loves the view that stretches over the marshes into nothingness, loves the expanse of sky and the sound of the sea, loves the birds that darken the evening sky, their wings turned to pink by the setting sun.

…It is a grey morning. The mist still lingers inland, but at the edge of the sea the air is cold and clear. It’s hard going, walking over pebbles and rocks encrusted with tiny, sharp mussel shells.

…Close up, Sea’s End House looks more gothic than ever, with grey stone walls, tiny mullioned windows, and a studded oak door more suited to a castle. When this last is pushed open, they enter a vast hall panelled in oak. A stained-glass window reflects pools of green and gold onto the parquet floor and a stag’s head stares morosely down at them.


Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories.  Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice.  Follow her on Twitter:  @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.

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