Book Review: The House at Sea’s End by Elly Griffiths

The House at Sea's End 2The House at Sea’s End
Elly Griffiths
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2012
ISBN 978-0-547-50614-2
Hardcover

From the author’s website—

Broughton Sea’s End is the end of the line, a lonely seaside village slowly being destroyed by coastal erosion. A team of archaeologists studying the erosion comes across human skeletons buried below Sea’s End House, the fortress home of eccentric local MEP Jack Hastings.

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called in to investigate. Ruth has just returned to work after the birth of her daughter and is finding it hard to combine work and motherhood. Ruth discovers that the bodies date from the Second World War.

This means a police investigation is needed, which means that Ruth will come face-to-face with Detective Inspector Harry Nelson, something she has been trying hard to avoid. Ruth and Nelson start to uncover the secrets of the war years at Broughton Sea’s End and it soon becomes clear is that someone is still alive who will kill to protect those secrets.

 

Trapped at Sea’s End House is a snow storm, Ruth and Nelson realise that the danger is very close indeed. Their only hope lies in Nelson’s colleague Judy and a local druid named Cathbad….

The body count starts out high and gets higher still in this intriguing and atmospheric mystery set in a rural English village with some dark secrets from the past. When the first bones are found at the bottom of a cliff, the police and the forensics team are baffled at how these bodies got there and who they were and each question leads to a new one. Learning the truth about these men will open some very old wounds; learning a few current truths will make more than one person’s life rather complicated.

The author has developed characters that are anything but boring and, at times, they’re downright unlikeable. Tatiana, for instance, is remarkably self-absorbed and, when Ruth asks a couple to be godparents to her baby, her insensitivity towards a difficult situation is jaw-dropping. Flaws such as these, though, make the players very human and multi-dimensional. There is an extensive cast of characters, which could be confusing, but the author is adept at making even minor personalities quite identifiable. On a minor note, I learned a new word when Craig says Anselm should have been a conchie and had done with it. “Conchie” is another word for conscientious objector or pacifist.

It’s important to note, also, that the setting is almost a character itself. The cold, the forbidding and crumbling coastline, the remnants of a class pecking order, the memories of World War II all contribute to an ambience that has a bit of a dark feel, lifting the story above what could be a routine police procedural. I especially appreciated the map of the area included in the front of the book.

As for the plot, there are several red herrings and the killer was a surprise to me. This is not a criticism of the author in any way as she plays fair—hints are given and the astute mystery reader may very well be better at solving it than I was.

The one thing about this book (and, I assume, the other books in the series) that irritated me is that it is written in third person present tense. I already disliked first person present tense and now I know I dislike third person present tense even more. To me, that interrupts the tension and the flow because the reader has no idea who is supposedly viewing and relating the action—you’d have to have a narrator that just happens to be on site for every scene. I don’t get the point of doing this and I was constantly aware of it, an unfortunate and unnecessary distraction.

Having said that, I liked the setting and most of the characters and the plot was refreshingly different. I’d also be interested in learning more about these people (in particular, why Ruth is so antagonistic towards her parents) so I will be reading the two earlier books in the series. Ms. Griffiths is an author who has a compelling talent and I suspect her audience will continue to grow.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2012.