"The Janus Stone", the second Ruth Galloway book, is as original and compelling as the first book, "The Crossing Places"
The story, which takes place a few months after "The Crossing Places", revolves around the discovery of the headless skeleton of a child, beneath an archway in a Victorian building being converted into apartments.
We weave through a web of myths and rituals related to sacrificing children to protect entrances and the history of the building, once an orphanage run by the Catholic Church, now being developed by a rich local family.
Some of the story is revealed in flashbacks that are purposely difficult to locate in time but which are quite chilling.
The thing that makes this book compelling for me is not the plot, which is interesting even if it requires disbelief to be suspended from time to time, but the ensemble cast of characters, especially the two leads: Ruth and Nelson.
Ruth, a forensic archaeologist at a Norfolk university, is one of the most plausible and likeable women I've read in British crime thrillers. She's practical, competent, organised but a little isolated and a little disappointed in her life. The way she comes to terms first with being pregnant by another woman's husband and second with the looming reality of having a child in her life, of being a mother, resonate as real. Her relationships with her parents (born again Christians, horrified, at least in principle, at the prospect of a bastard grandchild), her one-time best friend (a serial mistress, now dating Ruth's married Department Head), Nelson (the father of her child and a man she enjoys but does not expect to be with) and Nelson's wife (who, as a mother of two, takes Ruth under her wing) are rich and real.
Nelson, the curmudgeonly, Northern Detective Inspector, always makes me smile. He is so different from the clichéd broken policeman with a dark past, a drinking problem and an inability to deal with real life. He is married to a beautiful woman whose love for him still astonishes him on a daily basis and has two young daughters that he dotes. He is abrasive, demanding, drives too fast, shouts at computers and is intolerant of the schmoozing with local dignitaries that his job sometimes requires of him. He is charmingly unaware of the impact he has on his team, who work hard for his respect. He is focused, logical, and capable of gentleness. He has a great respect and affection for Ruth because she is competent and organised, stands up to him effortlessly and is both brave and vulnerable.
Both books in the series so far have given me a mix of murder and madness, wrapped in plausible and novel archeological detail to be good entertainment. What makes me look forward to the rest of the series is the interest I now have in what happens next to the ensemble cast, built of people I recognise and empathise with.
My enjoyment of the books has been enhanced by the excellent narration by Jane McDowell.
Click on the link below to hear her performance of "The Crossing Places"