Review | A Room Full of Bones, Elly Griffiths

I’m always up for discovering a new mystery series, so when I heard of Elly Griffiths’ A Room Full of Bones, which features Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist who solves mysteries, I was definitely interested. In Bones, a museum curator is found dead beside a coffin thought to contain the bones of medieval Bishop Augustine. I work in an art gallery, and I’ve always been fascinated by museums and artifacts, so I was excited to see how a forensic archaeologist would use her expertise to solve this mystery.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really see much mystery-solving from Ruth Galloway in this book. Bones is the first Galloway I’ve read but the fourth book in the series, and from this Eurocrime review, I see that Galloway is usually more involved in the actual case. However, I agree with the Eurocrime reviewer that the Galloway storyline in this book focused way too much on her personal life. It’s certainly realistic — as a single mother of a one year old, I can imagine that’ll take up most of her time. As well, I bet long-time fans of the series would be pleased to see so much character development. We learn not just about Galloway as a mother, but also about her complicated relationship with the baby’s father, D.I. Harry Nelson. To be honest, I really felt for Nelson’s wife Michele, and I did enjoy the scenes where she and Nelson struggle to make their relationship work. I also liked that, while Galloway clearly loves Nelson as the father of her baby, she doesn’t seem to be in love with him. I found that an interesting twist to the usual love triangle.

Despite the focus on Galloway’s personal life, there is a pretty interesting mystery in Bones. Galloway does discover a shocking fact about the bishop from the bones, and her expertise is eventually key to solving the curator’s death. I was disappointed that these pivotal elements appeared mostly in passing and I was somewhat disappointed at the way that mystery was resolved.

That being said, there are a couple of other mysteries in Bones — another character’s death and Nelson himself contracting a mysterious disease. These are both interesting puzzles, and I love the cast of secondary characters that we get to meet. The Smith family members are particularly quirky, and I like how the they reminded me a bit of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. We have all these complex characters, each potentially with his or her own motivations to commit a crime.

A blurb at the back of the novel calls Griffiths’ books “atmospheric,” and definitely, Bones contains an element of the gothic. I like that Griffiths never really confirms whether an incident is supernatural or whether it can be explained by science. For one plot twist in particular, Galloway’s friend Cathbad, a Druid, offers a supernatural explanation and drug-induced hallucinogenic solution, yet later on, someone else gives a more prosaic, perfectly rational explanation. This ambiguity adds to the atmosphere. While I found the potentially supernatural elements odd, I never really was sucked deep enough into the story to find them genuinely creepy. Even when someone received a snake that Cathbad says was a curse, I really just thought of it as a snake, despite Griffiths’ ambiguous treatment. That being said, I did have a horrible nightmare the first night I read this book. Perhaps my subconscious was more afraid than I realized.

A Room Full of Bones is a pretty good mystery. I was expecting a bit more of the historical mystery and I would have liked to see a bit more of the forensic archaeologist side of Ruth Galloway, but her personal life does make for an interesting story. I liked learning about the relationships between the characters, and I like how Griffiths made them seem real.

Review | Curiosity, Joan Thomas

Joan Thomas’ Curiosity relates the love story between two historical figures, Mary Anning and Henry de la Beche. Mary, a cabinet maker’s daughter who sells curiosities by the seashore unearths the intact skeleton of a prehistoric creature. This was almost half a century before Darwin published On the Origin of Species so Mary’s town still finds it difficult to believe the idea of a creature that existed pre-humanity. They are absolutely certain that creatures have always existed in their current form, and so are uncertain about how to deal with her discovery.

Mary meets and falls in love with Henry de la Beche, the son of gentry and a military college dropout who now enjoys sketching bird skeletons. I like that their attraction is primarily intellectual — both are very interested in exploring cutting edge scientific theories. Mary wants to escape her social limitations as a poor woman and the idea that all the education she needs is in the Bible, and Henry wants to escape the empty life of socializing that his wife finds satisfactory. They find this escape in each other, and yet can’t be together, not only because of Henry’s marriage but also because of the wide gulf between their social classes.

Thomas writes well; she keeps the old-fashioned language consistent throughout and in doing so, keeps us as readers firmly within the mindset of the novel. Her choice of Lyme Regis as a setting is also a smart move — it has as much atmosphere and romance here as it did for Austen in Persuasion.

While ostensibly a love story, the romance doesn’t really kick in until about halfway through the novel. Most of the book’s focus was on Mary’s scientific discovery and her and Henry’s struggle for intellectual freedom. I like how Thomas expanded her focus to much more than just a romance; even before they met, Mary and Henry’s intellectual compatibility and shared passion are evident. The romantic tension is therefore mostly external, and it’s just a matter of whether circumstances allow them to be together or not. As such, the wider story arc about scientific curiosity was more interesting.

Curiosity is a good book, very well-written, yet it didn’t really grab me. To be honest, I’m not sure why. It ticked off all the boxes of a good book — interesting characters, relationships complicated by circumstance, consistent, solid writing — but I mostly just found it unexceptional. It was okay, it was solid, but it wasn’t great. In this case, I’m not sure if it’s the mood I was in when I was reading it, or if the narrative pace just felt too constant. If you’re interested in historical, scientific romance with a touch of social commentary, this book may be worth checking out.