I ran this review back in March for those who were buying the UK copy of the book. Now that The Locked Room is coming out in the U.S. tomorrow, I'm running the review again.
At this point in the Ruth Galloway series, my love of it is well established. Reading a Ruth Galloway book by Elly Griffiths is always the highlight of my reading year. The Locked Room, the fourteenth book, continues the traditions of great story, characters, and writing. And, as is evident with Griffiths embracing of new series and books in her writing, she doesn’t shy away from a challenge. The Locked Room is set in the opening days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a brave undertaking for authors, as so many readers are looking to escape the horrors of this ordeal in their reading. Of course, it is the talent of an exceptional author to be able to revisit a horror and give the reader validation and understanding of their nightmarish experiences. Griffiths says in her acknowledgements at the end of the book, “I thought long and hard about setting a book in lockdown but, having written a book a year about Ruth for the last thirteen years, it seemed wrong to miss out 2020.” It turned out to be a spot-on decision. The characters in whom we’ve become so invested need to experience such a life changing time to stay relevant to us. Kudos to Elly Griffiths for knowing her characters and readers so well and trusting them to handle this event. Her writing of the pandemic’s beginning is gripping, and it perfectly captures the confusion and uncertainty of that time.
Ruth’s mother has been dead nearly five years, and Ruth is finally sorting through Jean’s belongings in the house in London where Ruth had grown up. Arthur has remarried, and his new wife wishes to do some redecorating, so Jean’s personal items need to move on. In a box labeled “Private” Ruth comes across an interesting photo, an old photo of her salt marsh cottage in Norfolk with the notation of “Dawn 1963” on the back. With her mother’s distaste for Norfolk and Ruth’s cottage, it’s quite the puzzle for Ruth. She returns to her home and has intentions to do some digging on it. The results of her inquiries will expose a gobsmacking secret that Ruth’s mother kept to the grave.
There’s also some archeological digging that comes up, as a skeleton is discovered in the Tomblands area of Norwich. Carbon dating will need to be done to determine the age of the skeleton, but Ruth surmises that’s it’s medieval times and female. There’s some speculation that it could be a plague victim, but Ruth thinks that it’s more likely to be a scattered part of the church burial yard. It’s a timely speculation though, as news of a deadly virus called Covid-19 is surfacing. England is placed in lockdown status, with schools and businesses closing. Ruth and her eleven-year-old daughter Kate are isolated in their home on the salt marshes, so at least they can get out in the air daily, and they do yoga through Zoom with Cathbad. They also have a new neighbor named Zoe, a nurse and good company for Ruth and Kate, at the advised social distances.
DCI Harry Nelson has just started an investigation into some purported suicides of women who didn’t seem to be in a suicidal state of mind. Something they all had in common was attending a weight-loss center called Lean Zone, one that Ruth had checked out but decided it wasn’t for her. Ruth’s neighbor Zoe is a regular at the meetings, or she was until lockdown closes them. DI Judy Johnson, DS Tanya Fuller, and DC Tony Zhang interview families and friends of the supposed suicides, and they are examining the homes of the deceased. It’s fortunate that the team has this headstart because Nelson’s boss, Super Jo, calls a meeting to discuss the new Covid safety measures. Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” the lockdown order is issued for the country, and entry into homes for interviews isn’t possible. The police station must stagger shifts, too, with only two people, plus the secretary, working in the Serious Crimes Unit at a time. Nelson finds himself alone in his house, as Michelle is in Blackpool visiting her mother. It does give him the opportunity to go see Ruth and Katie, even though he’s breaking the rules to do so. Ruth and Nelson have developed a less guilty attitude about being together, but it’s certainly far from a good situation for either of them. When Nelson’s daughter Laura comes home for lockdown, once again Ruth loses Nelson to his first family. Michelle doesn’t come home until the end of the book, but readers are aware that she’s come to some decision while she was away.
The place setting of this story is especially perfect for the darkness of the period. Ruth and Kate isolated on their piece of salt march paradise, which starts to feel less like a place of freedom and more like a prison, as they are forbidden anything else. The place that they do sneak and visit is anything but cheery. Ruth’s friend Janet, who lives in one of the historical houses at Tombland in Norwich, calls Ruth to come and look at some strange findings. It’s a place of plague history, and the legend of the Grey Lady ghost is well-known. The plague and the pandemic are easily compared with places like this to provide ambience. One of the earmarks of Ellly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series that I enjoy so much is the link to Norfolk folklore. This book introduces the Grey Lady that haunts Tombland, and readers will no doubt recall the Black Shuck with its death stare and the ghost lights of Norfolk’s Lantern Men that will lead you to your death in the marshes. Atmosphere never goes wanting in this series.
Readers are given an intimate look inside the lives of our beloved characters’ struggles with the challenges of a lockdown. From the shut-down of schools and trying to do classes online in a new format called Zoom, to parents homeschooling their children, to conducting a police investigation with reduced resources and distanced contact, to shopping for groceries in a queue, to fighting the loneliness and isolation from loved ones and colleagues, to the awfulness of having a loved one deteriorating from Covid and landing in intensive care on life support. The characters we’ve come to know and love are hurting, and we hurt with them, remembering our own fears and indeterminate future. Griffiths is able to incorporate many problems of the pandemic into this novel as a natural part of the storyline, not superfluous material. Domestic abuse and a lack of PPE equipment for medical workers and housing problems for students with no place to go. All this is brought to the forefront of our attention and brings back memories of that time we all went through. One of our long-term characters will face Covid full-on, and we will suffer through the tragedy of preparing to say goodbye to a loved one struck by this killer disease.
This review might seem long to some, but there is so much I didn’t touch upon, so much for readers to still discover. I want readers to have the joy of reading the words of Elly Griffiths to reveal what a brilliant tale this is. I think fans of this series will be thrilled with The Locked Room and be champing at the bit for number fifteen, as there is a cliffhanger at the end which promises to bring some major decisions to some of the main characters’ lives.
I do feel I need to comment on the relationship quagmire that entangles Ruth and Nelson. As much as I am a fan of Ruth and Nelson together, this book had me wanting some resolution more than ever. I was rather upset with Nelson that his grown daughter Laura whines and he races to her, leaving Ruth and their amazing young daughter Kate to understand. My understanding with him is growing thin. My heart breaks for young Kate as she is always so delighted to see her father and never complains when he leaves them short. It’s clear that he loves Ruth and Kate, and I’m ready for him to man up. Or maybe someone else will.
The Locked Room is a book you don’t want to miss in the Ruth Galloway series. Don’t be discouraged by the inclusion of the pandemic. As I’ve already stated, I agree with Elly Griffiths
that she just couldn’t leave out 2020 in the lives of the characters
whom most of us have long ago crystallized into living, breathing
people. To continue our connection to the characters, it’s essential
that they experience our same world. I believe that The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths
will be held up as an example of successful pandemic literature, and I
can imagine people years from now reading it and gleaning from it how
the shock of it all felt. I’m grateful that Elly trusted her readers, and now, her readers must trust her. She never lets us down.
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