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There are two sets of bones in this latest adventure with forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway - the remains of a medieval bishop and a collection of Australian aboriginal bones which are housed in a small privately-owned museum. This is the fourth book in this engagingly written series but new readers will have no difficulty in enjoying the complex interweaving of plots and the personal life of the protagonist.
Griffith's pattern is to have a present day investigation overlapping or interconnecting with the mysteries which call for her archaeological expertise. In A ROOM FULL OF BONES, Griffiths uses the Smith Museum with its owners. Lord Danforth Smith and family, as the linchpin around which the events of this novel take place
When Galloway arrives early at the museum to be present at the opening of the newly unearthed coffin of Lord Smith's ancestor, Bishop Augustine Smith, she stumbles over the body of the museum's curator. With the arrival of the police, she is again thrown into contact with DCI Harry Nelson, who is the father of her child. Kate was the offspring of a one-night encounter in the first book of this series, THE CROSSING PLACES. As Nelson is otherwise happily married, they have not been in touch for some time at the request of Nelson's wife.
Although an autopsy reveals that the curator died from an acute pulmonary hemorrhage, it did not reveal what caused it. What the autopsy did reveal was an extensive use of drugs. With the discovery of some threatening letters to the curator, Nelson's suspicions are aroused. He goes to question Lord Smith at his estate, an expanded set of racing stables. When asked if he knew about the letters, Lord Smith produces one addressed to him from a group called the Elginists asking for the repatriation of the aboriginal bones from his museum.
All the members of Lord Smith's family are involved in one way or another with the major themes in this novel. The youngest daughter Caroline manages the stables but has travelled extensively and is sympathetic to the questions of both animal and aboriginal rights. Her brother Randolf seems more intent on living a fast-paced though troubled social life neglecting familial duties as a talented horseman. Lord Smith's wife Romilly is a dedicated animal rights activist although not interested in the stables. And neither is her older daughter Tasmin, a lawyer, married with two children, engrossed only in pursuing a life of luxury in London.
Neither Galloway nor Nelson are surprised to discover that their Druidic friend Cathbad knows about and is a supporter of the Elginist cause. In fact Cathbad is helping to organize a conference designed to educate the public in general and archeologists in particular about the justice of their demands. Cathbad is also responsible for directing the aboriginal activist Bob Woonunga, who will be featured at the conference, to move into the house next to Galloway's. Both are instrumental in awakening Galloway's consciousness about the humanity of archaeological specimens.
Ethical questions are also raised about disturbing the bones of Bishop Augustine Smith. Evidently, Bishop Smith did not want his body found as the whereabouts of the coffin had been deliberately concealed. Legend has it that if the corpse was disturbed, a curse would fall on the heads of those responsible for the desecration. Nevertheless, to establish that it is the bishop's coffin, it is opened at the museum with only a few in attendance, including Lord Smith and DCI Nelson. Shortly afterwards Lord Smith is found dead and a couple of days later DCI Nelson falls seriously ill. Although Lord Smith's death is attributed to a heart attack, the fact that Nelson becomes drastically ill so soon after indicates a possible link between the two events. A clever clue in the prologue as to the cause only becomes evident at the very end of the book.
Nelson and his team have also been trying to find out who has been supplying the sudden influx of drugs into Norfolk. Although devastated by Nelson's dramatic illness, Detectives Johnson and Clough do some clever work. DS Judy Johnson in particular follows her instincts and uncovers the evidence that will tie together the disparate elements of this story.
One other characteristic of the Galloway series is the parallel explanations of events using pagan or Druidic beliefs and modern science. In this story, Griffith also adds aboriginal beliefs and rites. Both Cathbad and Woonunga attribute Nelson's illness to his being lost in the Dreaming Places from which he must be rescued. Galloway is frequently depicted as caught between two worlds, half-believing the spiritual explanation but in the end coming down on the side of science.
One criticism I have of the book is that the amount of detail about Galloway's domestic life as a single mother and the love interests she pursues pushes the series more into the cozy category. I think I preferred the earlier books which concentrated more on the archaeological forensics. Still, Griffiths offers us coherent and plausible resolutions to to her complex plot, regardless of the domestic distractions.
§ Ann Pearson is a photographer and retired college Humanities teacher who lives in Montreal
Reviewed by Ann Pearson, March 2012
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