Judith Sullivan is a financial journalist who lives in Leeds but hails from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris.
There is a deep thread of empathy that runs through archaeologist Ruth Galloway’s latest outing in the Badlands around Norwich and Kings Lynn. The Chalk Pit focuses on the homeless community – a group rarely given a look-in other than as cut-out villains or victims.
What makes The Chalk Pit easy to connect with, is the three-dimensional nature of the homeless men and women and the characters who work with them in soup kitchens, churches and police stations.
We have Aftershave Eddie (so named because he’ll drink anything), Babs (a woman whose four children have all been taken into care or adopted) and Stuart Bilbo Hughes, an avid music and chess fan. A word these people often use is “underground,” which runs as a literal and figurative leitmotif throughout the novel. The term also underlines the importance to the plot of Galloway’s excavation work. Regular crime novel readers will not be surprised to know some of the bones she uncovers are not nearly as old as first suspected.
This is also a book about collaboration. Delving into the subterranean mysteries is the dynamic Harry Nelson/Ruth Galloway duo, he the cop, she his onetime lover and forensic expert. It is a tangled web, with one homeless person murdered and at least two women who seem to vanish into the air (or the ground maybe?).
The Chalk Pit keeps the mystery going almost to the final page. The last chapters cover an unusual take on the final round of cat and mouse, where the players duck and dive below street level. Confronted with evil forces, the book suggests, the housed and the non-housed are equally vulnerable. Comfortable yuppies and rough sleepers meet in the book in extraordinary situations that ultimately bring out the best in everyone.
Galloway’s expertise and kindness help the police officers prevent a bloodbath and rescue some of the almost-victims.
Poor old Ruth has a lot thrown at her in this ninth outing. Some terrible things happen to her (which would be plot spoilers) but she maintains her sense of humour and dignity and acts on her curiosity and bloody-mindedness that are the attributes of believable and likeable detectives. Harry, as well, struggles with issues not related to the homeless community plot. And yet they maintain a connection that is adult and strong and credible and allows them to raise their daughter intelligently despite Harry being married to somebody else.
There are some clunky bits to The Chalk Pit – with overlong exposition and wording that rings untrue, however none of these are fatal, and the plot proceeds with a brisk and intriguing pace.
Griffiths presents issues gently, though allowing the reader to draw conclusions (or not) on meaty issues such as all of our duties to our community, the concept of parenting and marriage versus partnership.
Early on in the book one character refers to historical artefacts that can shed light on “change and decay and life and death”.
All four themes are covered in this book. And well and in a very interesting context, in a story peppered with light humour – The scene where a dead body is discovered on the door of the police station is priceless and would surely fit well into a film.
Griffiths provides some light biographical details on the main players at the end of the book (another nice touch). Ruth is described as a Springsteen fan (I knew I liked her for a reason). This book talks about the Ties that Bind and how We Take Care of our Own in the face of Murder Incorporated is a good yarn and worth looking out for.