"Cathbad would say it was all part of the great web."
Parting is such sweet sorrow. Don’t I know it. I have been privileged to read one of the best mystery/crime series ever written. I have had ten plus years of looking forward to a new Ruth Galloway mystery to read, and this year, 2023, is the last year for that guaranteed pleasure. But, I surprisingly find myself doing okay with this loss, and that’s all due to the brilliance of Elly Griffiths in giving this story the ending it needed. Of course, not all fans are going to agree on what’s the right ending, but the characters whom I’ve come to know and love have to do what’s best for their futures. The Last Remains is a story with lots of change and long-awaited answers. Every page is to be savored.
Lock-down for the pandemic is over, and life is beginning to open up again in 2021 when the academic school year is coming to a close and the summer solstice is near. Ruth’s professional world is being turned upside down with the announcement of the closure of the archeology department at University of North Norfolk. Ruth is head of this department and is working with fellow teacher David Brown to save the department, but even the fame Ruth has brought to the university with her archeological work doesn’t seem to sway the board. Without her job at UNN, Ruth will have to consider moving from Kings Lynn and her cottage by the marshes to find another teaching position. School selection for Ruth’s twelve-year-old daughter Kate is important in the decision making, too, as she begins secondary school. And, there’s Nelson. Spending more time with him and Kate having him in her life on a regular basis has been just what Ruth wanted. Nelson’s wife, Michelle, is living in Blackpool, so that’s allowed Nelson to focus on Ruth and Kate. And, yet, Ruth has avoided conversations with Nelson about them moving in together.
A case that will bring Ruth to work with Nelson has just come about. Builders renovating a café take down an inner brick wall and discover a full human skeleton behind the wall. Ruth is called in because, well, bones, and the police need to determine how old they are. Turns out that they are fairly recent in terms of bones found, around twenty years old, and being bricked up in a wall pretty much guarantees that the person who inhabited those bones didn’t get there by herself. Ruth suspects the skeleton is female, and science backs her up. So, a murder investigation begins, one which will involve Ruth's and Nelson's friend Cathbad as a person of interest.
Emily Pickering was a student of archeology twenty years ago at St. Jude's College in Cambridge, and one of the last things she did was to attend a weekend at Grimes Grave's, a local ancient burial site, where Cathbad was also an attendee. The professor in charge of the outing, Leo Ballard, was an associate of Cathbad’s and a mentor to some of the students, including Emily. Was Leo more than a mentor to his female students? Would that have been a factor in the young woman’s death? What about the last known sightings of Emily Pickering in Ely the morning the outing to Grime's Graves ended? What happened after that? Everyone at that weekend gathering must be questioned, and the relationships among them untangled. Cathbad, who seems to have lingering effects from his serious bout with Covid, disappears as the investigation progresses. Is he somewhere felled by his Covid-related problems, or did he run away from a murder investigation? His timing couldn’t be worse.
The Ruth Galloway series is remarkable in so many ways. The setting of North Norfolk is greatly accommodating to stories, with its salt marshes and rich history and archeological finds and fascinating folkore and interesting, quirky places to visit. The lantern men, the black shuck, and the grey lady of Tombland can all give a shiver when they show up in different books. The salt marshes where Ruth lives with Kate in their cottage is featured throughout the books, and it gives off an other-worldly ambiance, sometimes with lights. The ancient history of the Norfolk that goes back to the Bronze Age and the Iron Age--Nelson never could remember which was when--is included in the archeological findings of Ruth and others. The Seahenge was the first thing Ruth and Cathbad have in common. With Ruth being a forensic archeologist, her involvement in the police investigations always deals with the past and how it connects to the present. Elly Griffiths has taken this story-rich setting and a character cast second to none and entwined them into well-paced, suspenseful plots unique in their telling.
I can't emphasize enough how beloved the characters of the Ruth Galloway series are. I've saved my final words about the series for a farewell to them. Before I talk about the elephant in the room of character wrap-ups, that of Ruth and Nelson, I want to comment on a job well done by other characters. We readers have a die-hard investment in their well-being, as we've followed them through the years. The Druid who captured our affection so completely deserves some single-outed attention. Cathbad is larger than life, earning an equal footing with Ruth and Nelson, but his near magical existence sets him apart from any competition for affection. Almost losing him to Covid in the last book was a hard road for readers to travel. Elly Griffiths created something so special in this character that he has worked himself up to those mythical proportions running so wonderfully throughout the stories from Norfolk folklore and mythology. His given name of Michael Malone just didn't encapsulate his extraordinary spirit, and so Cathbad was born. He became the calm in the storm for the turmoil running through other characters’ lives and an integral part of Ruth’s and Nelson’s lives.
The police team working with Nelson have provided us with supporting cast gold. Judy Johnson's evolution from Nelson’s second in command and a good Catholic girl in a marriage with her high school sweetheart to becoming Cathbad’s life partner is a transformation that readers found themselves rooting enthusiastically for. Judy found freedom and love, and it was just such a lovely development, and, of course, she remains at the top of her game on the police force. Dave Clough's (Cloughie) popularity seemed a bit more unexpected, but he ended up imprinted on our hearts, too, and it was always a delight to see him show up, even after he transferred to Cambridgeshire and became a DI. Clough started in the series as an annoying blowhard, but he surprised readers and the other characters by becoming a friend to Judy and someone the team could depend on beyond his time in Kings Lynn. Prickly DS Tanya Fuller redeems herself in The Last Remains, becoming a part of the team effort and not worrying so much about her place in it. Judy’s absence on this case, due to Cathbad being a person of interest, provides the opportunity for Tanya to step up and not feel so competitive. We see some nice glimpses of DC Tony Zhang's personal life in The Last Remains and some interesting investigative work when he is isolated due to Covid exposure. Tony is an excellent investigator and sociably inclined, so, according to Nelson, "he always gets the personal stuff" from those he interviews. The newer team members of DC Bradley Linwood and DC Lucy Vanstone have good instincts and awareness of details. Lucy is on loan from Cambridgeshire and has a surprising connection to the area. All of these members of Nelson's team and Nelson bring their different strengths and personalities to make the police procedural part of the series fascinating.
From the beginning of the series, the complicated relationship between Dr. Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson has dominated character story-lines. Oh, how we readers have been put through the wringer with these two. The Last Remains, of course, follows that line of nothing ever being simple with them, but, oh dear readers, we do at last get resolution. Hopefully, it is the resolution you can be pleased with, as Ruth and Nelson don’t always follow the path of fairy-tales and Hallmark movies. The character of Ruth is such a force in these books and in the hearts of readers that we all want what’s best for her. I know that I have experienced one of the best character loves I ever will with Ruth Galloway. Of course, paying tribute to the characters wouldn’t be complete without a grand salute to the amazing creation of Ruth’s and Nelson’s love, their daughter Kate. She has been an absolute delight, certainly holding her own in an imperfect world. Kate conducts herself with a maturity and forbearance many adults fail to achieve. It’s Kate that I end up wondering the most about in what the future holds after this book.
There are more characters who readers have followed through the series, most notably Nelson's wife Michelle and his two oldest daughters, Laura and Rebecca. However, I'm going to abide by the maxim, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." I admit there is growth in these characters, and they are essential to the series. And, of course, if Elly Griffiths creates a character, it's going to be an interesting character, whether a reader likes them or not, or whether they're heroic or villainous. I was hoping to leave the series with a more positive outlook on these three women, but the Father's Day dinner in this book rather smacked of manipulation and deceit. It's always been Kate, sweet Kate, who has had to settle for less, with little or no thought for her feelings. And, I do realize that Nelson isn't innocent in letting his life be ruled by their expectations. I will say I am going to miss Flint and Thing and Bruno. The animals come from a place of love. Well, maybe Flint could have shown a little more love.
So, the end, at least for now, has come, and I haven’t been reduced to a despondent, grief-stricken shell of my former self. I will, of course, miss the characters who have become so alive to me and the stories that kept me on the edge of my seat. I love this series like a best friend, because it has brought such joy to my life. But, Elly Griffiths has given readers one last beautiful, amazing story that does this series proud, and I must thank her for that. OK, I’m crying just a little.
Thanks to Mariner Books for an advanced copy of The Last Remains.