The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths

>> Sunday, December 07, 2014

TITLE: The Janus Stone
AUTHOR: Elly Griffiths

PAGES: 337

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 2nd in the Ruth Galloway series, following The Crossing Places

Forensics expert Ruth Galloway is called in to investigate when builders, demolishing a large old house in Norwich to make way for a new development, uncover the skeleton of a child - minus the skull - beneath a doorway. Is it some ritual sacrifice or just plain straightforward murder? DCI Harry Nelson must find out.

The house was once a children's home. Nelson meets the Catholic priest who used to run the home. He tells him that two children did go missing forty years before - a boy and a girl. They were never found.

When carbon dating proves that the child's bones predate the children's home, Ruth is drawn more deeply into the case. But as spring turns to summer it becomes clear that someone is trying very hard to put her off the scent by frightening her half to death...

In this second book in the Ruth Galloway series, Ruth is again brought into what turns out to be a police case. She's a forensic archeologist at the local university in Norwich, so she's the obvious person to call when builders find a headless skeleton of a child under the doorway of a house they're working on. Since the house was once a children's home, and one from which two children disappeared some 40 years earlier, the police also gets involved. And wouldn't you know it, the policeman in charge of that investigation is DCI Harry Nelson, whose relationship with Ruth developed into something quite interesting in book 1.

It was an intriguing set-up, but I'm afraid it was much too easy to figure out the whodunnit, and even something which should have been a surprise about the identity of a particular character. It was all a bit too obvious, really. Now, that's not necessarily an issue if the process through which the police investigate is particularly good, but it wasn't really in this case. The investigation felt like it went in the directions the plot needed, rather than in those an investigation would naturally have gone. As for the explanations behind it all, they were disappointing as well. There's basically two cases related to the house, one of the inital skeleton discovered (which turns out to predate the dates during which the house was a children's home) and the disappearance of the two kids. We know a lot of what happened in the earlier case through diary entries that are interspersed throughout the story, and which were just icky, rather than interesting. The modern disappearance is a bit more interesting, although some of it is easy to guess. And then there's trying to understand why someone is harassing Ruth and trying to hinder her work. The explanation behind that was just a bit silly and nonsensical. A "'cause he's a nutter" sort of thing, which is not at all satisfying.

A lot of space is devoted to the personal lives of the characters, and I like that in a mystery series. Ruth and DCI Nelson are really not one-note, and Griffiths takes some risks with them. This is a bit of a spoiler for book 1, so don't read on if you're planning to start at the beginning with the series, but at the start of this book, we find out that Ruth and Nelson's one-night-stand, which took place after particularly traumatic events in book 1, has resulted in Ruth becoming pregnant. Nelson is married, so this is an issue. Not that Ruth is asking anything of him (a bit stupidly, really. She's so concerned with not being demanding that she doesn't even think that it won't be easy to bring up a child on an academic salary and without any family around to help her. Of course you should demand Harry financially support his own child, you idiot!).

I couldn't stop myself from comparing this with the Rev. Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne series, by Julia Spencer-Fleming. The situation is similar, in that the male characters in both series are happily married to beautiful women they love at the start of the series, and then they start feeling a connection to women who are on the sensible, non-glamorous side. The difference is that Russ would not cheat on his wife. He doesn't immediately leave her when he realises he feels something for Clare, but the conflict is centred on whether he and Clare can still be friends when those feelings are there, or do they just need to cut off contact because those very feelings are cheating. With Harry, his whole conflict was more along the lines of "I screwed up, how do I keep this from my wife", which I found very sordid.

I found myself not liking these characters at all, and not really in a way that I think was intended. The narrative itself feels a bit misogynistic. Women seem to all be in competition and are all really catty. Ruth, in particular, is bitchy and resentful and envious about any woman who's younger than her and traditionally attractive. But it's not that Ruth is a flawed character who tells herself she's beyond caring if men find her attractive, but actually isn't (this would actually be interesting). The narrative actually portrays any woman younger than Ruth and more traditionally attractive than her as shallow and stupid and unlikeable, and that really annoyed me.

Also, it all feels a bit cartoonish. Characters' reactions don't ring true. They often don't behave like real humans. It's the little things that drove me crazy, because I kept going WTF every page. It's things like this: we're at a particularly tense moment, close to the end, as the case is unravelling. One of his officers is telling Nelson about a crucial finding she's made, and she's telling him that what gave her the clue was a piece of knowledge that's quite obscure. And in the middle of this tense development, he finds the time for a bit of anti-intellectual bitching: "Classical scholar, are you now?" Oh, seriously!

So, not a huge success, this one. I like the setting, which has a very vivid sense of place, and the bare bones of the cases very much, but I'm not sure I'll be continuing with this series. I might give the next one a shot, but I might not.



Darlynne,  8 December 2014 at 15:51  

I gave up after book four, I think. On the one hand, the personal problems and personalities of both Ruth and Harry seem quite realistic. Ruth's later struggles with being a new mother also rang true, and yes, Harry is definitely in the how-do-I-not-get-caught column. There is great and sincere conflict once the baby arrives in a later book.

The problem, imo, has always been the mystery or crime, relying too much on coincidence and really obscure information that plays into the coincidences, followed by the inevitable rescue of Ruth. And in the personal sense, none of the main characters are bad people, but there is a sadness and sordidness about the whole thing. It happens, true, but I'm not sure how much I want to read it.

Rosario 10 December 2014 at 19:52  

Yep, what you said. I think I might like the mysteries a bit better than you (the setups compensate a bit for what -I agree- is an overreliance on coincidence), but agree completely on the characters. I think I might keep reading and try the next one, but I will very definitely not be reading for the romance!

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