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.