Saturday, 1 August 2015

Archaeological Mystery Novels

This week I finally got round to reading two novels that I'd been getting round to for some time. Both have an archaeologist in the starring role, and both are murder mysteries. In real life, archaeologists are called in by the police to excavate when bones are found, and the techniques of archaeology are designed for collecting evidence, but writers so often get it wrong when they try to write about archaeology. I still have nightmares about that episode of Murder, She Wrote where the trenches were laid out in a style not seen since the 1950s and Jessica finds a valuable artefact - a gold plate, I think - and jumps up and down waving it in the air! And then there was that awful BBC series which started with an episode about the True Cross, and had the student digger inviting a member of the public down into the trench, and later wandering around with the lump of True Cross under her arm, instead of recording it properly! Come on, people, at least give it a context number!

Fortunately, The Lifers' Club is written by Francis Pryor, who is a real archaeologist who has written several very good non-fiction books on archaeology - and reading the descriptions of archeological digs here took me right back to the days when I was a circuit digger. Reading about setting up the grid, and dumpy levels (used for surveying), and trowelling back - it was like relaxing into something when you don't even realise you've been tense.
The mystery was interesting and complex as well, involving an "honour killing" in a Turkish family and the Turkish family's links to one of the archaeologists who were working on a dig when the young woman disappeared, who has since done very well for himself and now runs his own company. Our hero, Alan Cadbury, goes to work for the company, and at the same time is trying to prove the innocence of the young man convicted of the murder of his sister, who is a member of the Lifers' Club of the title in the nearby high security prison.
There was an interesting sub-plot about a Victorian pillar of the community who turned out not to be such a nice man after all, thanks to discoveries at a dig in a churchyard, which ties into the main plot when several of the Saxon skeletons they dig up turn out to come from Eastern Europe.
I really enjoyed this one, and will be looking out for the sequel. Francis Pryor also writes a good blog, with a link in the side bar.

Elly Griffiths isn't an archaeologist herself, but she's done her research very well. I first became aware of her at the Hay Festival a few years ago, when she was sharing the stage with Phil Rickman (our local mystery writer) and someone else whose name I've forgotten. Elly Griffiths stuck in my memory because she was writing about a woman archaeologist in Norfolk. I spent two years digging on the Norwich Castle Mall excavation, and as soon as my husband got his driving licence and a Rascal van we spent every weekend going out looking at Norfolk churches. So this is an area I used to know pretty well.
I finally got my hands on a copy of The Crossing Places, the first in her series about Ruth Galloway, and it involves child murder and a sea henge, and a druid in a purple cloak who calls himself Cathbad. The Chief Inspector on the case comes from Blackpool (another area I used to know well), there's a charismatic Norwegian archaeologist - and lots of marital infidelity.
I was impressed with Ruth Galloway, who came over as a competent archaologist and an interesting character, the mystery was very well done - and it did take me back to those big Norfolk skies. Elly Griffiths mentions her indebtedness to Francis Pryor's book Seahenge in the acknowledgements, too.
I'll be looking for the next one in her series as well.

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