Sunday 16 December 2018

Angels and devils: from soap opera to thrilling finale

Crime: The Dark Angel, Elly Griffiths, Quercus, hardback, 343 pages, €13.50

The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths
The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Elly Griffiths' series of crime novels, about Norfolk-based forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Ten years, 10 books - and a lot of praise, sales and awards.

I hadn't read a Galloway novel before. Did The Dark Angel convert me into fandom? It's enjoyable and I'd give Griffiths' next one a whirl if it crossed my path - but I won't be rushing through the back catalogue. We begin with an outstandingly arresting prologue: Italian archaeologist Angelo finds a mobile phone on a Roman-era skeleton - which then sends him a text message.

Angelo calls in old pal Ruth to solve this mystery, and add some Anglophone glamour to the TV show he's producing. She flies off to a small town outside Rome, leaving behind a rather complicated personal life.

Ruth had an affair with Detective Nelson; he's the father of her little girl, Kate. She's in love with him, and he might be with her; but Nelson's wife, Michelle, is pregnant, so he can't leave her. And the father of her baby might be Tim, another cop who moved from Norfolk because he was in love with Michelle, who seems to be in love with him.

It sounds a bit ridiculous spelled out like that. It is a bit ridiculous, and one of the novel's weaker aspects. I'm not mad about crime-fiction series at the best of times. Generally there's far too much detailing (and clumsy recapping) of characters' personal lives, romantic entanglements, pets and hobbies and foibles - and not nearly enough crime and punishment.

At times, The Dark Angel strays into the realm of soap opera or romantic melodrama. Which is fine if that is what you're looking for; not so enjoyable for crime aficionados.

But the book really kicks into top gear when the main plots - two, running parallel - get going. In bella Italia, Ruth, Angelo and others puzzle over a series of mysterious occurrences (threatening graffiti, an animal's skull left at the apartment door) before a local priest is bludgeoned to death. There are dark secrets from the past - concerning Italian collaboration with the Nazis during WWII - that someone wants to keep hidden. Now Ruth and Kate could be in the firing line.

Back in England, a stone-cold bastard called Mickey Webb has just been released from prison. He served several years for paying someone to burn his house down, which killed his wife and kids.

Webb claims to have found God in jail and to be a changed man. But there's something unsettling about him, even creepy. Then he's seen lurking around the home of police involved in sending him away a decade earlier. Could he be out for grisly revenge?

The Dark Angel climaxes in a scene that's tense, gripping, violent and almost shocking. It takes a while to get there, but that finale is worth the wait.

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