Elly Griffiths has published fiction in other fields but The Crossing Places is her first crime novel – I hope the first of many cases for forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, her protagonist, and DCI Harry Nelson, with whom she shares the detection honours. This novel is set in the remote and atmospheric marshland of the Norfolk coast.
Q. I enjoyed The Crossing Places greatly, so my first question is an obvious one: after reading the novel, I’m very glad you turned to the crime field, but what influenced you into doing so?
I’ve wanted to write a crime novel for some time. I love crime fiction, particularly Victorian novels like The Moonstone or The Murders in the Rue Morgue where the detective was just starting to emerge as a literary figure. In my last ‘non-crime’ novel I had a mystery sub-plot which eventually threatened to engulf the whole book. When I was thinking about what to write next I realised that what I really wanted to do was write a ‘proper’ crime novel – dead bodies, detectives and all.
Q. Ruth Galloway was inspired by your husband decision to give up a city job to train as an archaeologist. However you write very naturally about the tools, methods, aims and the excitement of archaeology, yet without forcing information on to the reader, which is a frequent pitfall of writing in an area that one doesn’t experience at first hand. Do you go on digs with your husband, and have you done so in Norfolk?
He never lets me come on digs because I’m far too lazy! Digging is incredibly hard work and I would want a cappuccino break after about ten minutes. However he has been very helpful with the details and I do think living with an archaeologist has helped me understand a little of what it’s all about. I love the idea that you can read a landscape, make deductions based on the colour of the grass or the shape of the hills. It feels very magical to me though I do know that it involves hard physical work (and a lot of mud).
Q. Another theme of this novel is folklore and prehistoric ritual, and they are central to its mood and plot. Is this is a general interest of yours, or is it specific to the area you are writing about so skilfully? Is there one particular myth or ritual that you always link with the marshes?
Yes, one holiday in Norfolk my husband started talking about marshland, how it was sacred to prehistoric man because it is neither land nor sea but something in-between. Prehistoric man saw marshland as a kind of bridge between life and death which is why they buried sacrifices there. The entire plot of The Crossing Places really came from this one conversation. Also, I’ve always been fascinated by Norse mythology. My mum used to tell me the stories when I was very young (she wanted to call my sister Freya but my dad objected) and I think they have stayed with me. I love the way the myths are entwined with the seasons and the natural world.
Q. The atmosphere of location is an important tool in any novel but in a crime novel it can be invaluable. In yours, the eeriness and sense of the past that you convey in describing the salt marsh contributes much to the pace of the novel as well as to the plot. I was with you every minute during the scary scenes on the Saltmarsh. Have you had such experiences yourself?
I was once lost in a fog on the South Downs but I realise this is not nearly so dramatic! I have always lived near the sea and feel a real pull towards lonely coastal scenery like the Saltmarsh.
Q. You write in the present tense. Did this come instinctively, or was it the result of a logical decision, having considered the pros and cons?
It was a conscious decision because I felt that, in a crime novel, you need a real sense of jeopardy, a feeling that events are happening ‘now’ Having said that, I love the way Victorian novels start by saying things like: ‘This is the story of the strange events that happened when I was but a child...’
Q. I was very impressed by your characterisation of Nelson, and the way he develops throughout the novel. It’s often difficult to have two strong characters interacting without the need for constant conflict between them. Did Nelson spring fully armed onto the page as a character, or did he grow in your mind just as he develops in the novel?
I’m so glad you like Nelson! I love him but I have noticed before that the men in my books tend to be tall, dark and bad-tempered. He really did spring into life fully formed, as did Ruth. Nelson isn’t based on anyone in my life although my brother-in-law did supply some of the Blackpool background, particularly about the football team.
Q. You’ve taken a familiar subject in crime fiction – the disappearance of a child – and brought it across very sympathetically. It is intertwined throughout, however, with the theme of prehistoric ritual and sacrifice, which requires the reader to immerse himself in a completely different world. The mixture works very well in The Crossing Places, but in some novels the balance gets out of kilter with either the past or the present coming over with greater emphasis indicating the author’s bias. In yours I felt that this wasn’t the case; however what flows naturally on the printed page for the reader is often very hard to achieve during the writing process. Did you find it so?
I did know it was a little risky doing the whole ‘scary stuff in italics’ bit. I’m glad you think it paid off. I am very squeamish about anything to do with children, especially since I’ve had children myself, so I did find those parts very hard to write.
Q. I felt there was a freshness and direct appeal in this novel. Partly this was due to the strength of the two main characters, partly to your writing of course, partly to the atmospheric location and partly perhaps to a factor X. Do you have your own ideas as to what factor X is? Could you, for example, write in the same style about Sussex (where you currently live) as you do about Norfolk, or was it your memories of Norfolkthat first inspired you?
I wish I did know what factor X is. I used to work in publishing and we were always trying to find ‘the next J.K Rowling’, ‘the next Patricia Cornwall.’ Eventually I came to the conclusion that you just can’t predict these things. The best novels are the ones written from the heart without trying to fit into a particular genre. Who could have predicted the success of ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’, for example? It was just a brilliant book.
Q. Lastly, a question which a lot of readers are going to ask: when can we expect the next Ruth Galloway novel?
Well, the next book is about ‘foundation sacrifices’; bodies, often children, found buried under houses, supposedly for luck. It takes us into the territory of the Roman Gods, in particular Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft.
Many thanks, Elly, and all good wishes for The Crossing Places. And my appetite’s well and truly whetted for the next one.
The Crossing Places, Elly Griffiths,
Quercus, hardback £12.99, February 2009
ISBN 978 1 84724 846 6
See the Shotsmag review pages for a review of The Crossing Places.