The Janus Stone is every bit as good as its predecessor, The Crossing Places, and in most ways even better. The protagonist, Dr Ruth Galloway, head of the forensic archaeology department at North Norfolk University (a fictional institution), is as instantly easy to like and to identify with as she was in the previous novel. Here, she is involved in advising on a dig on the coastal salt marshes, in which Dr Max Grey of a university in Sussex is supervising the uncovering of Roman remains. In addition, Ruth is called to assist at a site in the local town, where an old mansion is being demolished in preparation for the building of a large number of “luxury” (i.e. poky) apartments on the same site. A few archaeologists have been allowed to spend some time digging for artefacts before the main construction work begins, but they discover bones that are a lot more recent than from any archaeological era.
We experience these events through Ruth’s eyes – she is a 40-year-old, slightly overweight, single woman, highly intelligent and individual, whose mind has the academic’s blessing and curse of cutting straight to the point of everything she experiences. This mental unvarnished yet quiet commentary on local events and people as well as on the wider world, is for me what lifts these novels into truly enjoyable, engaging experiences. Ruth’s lack of modern political correctness is a much-welcomed articulation of many of life’s modern irritations. In addition, perhaps because of her stifling childhood, Ruth is a tolerant and sympathetic person, and hence finds out a lot more about people and what they are up to than she might do otherwise.
At the end of The Crossing Places, Ruth made an unexpected and interesting discovery. That theme is continued in The Janus Stone, providing many amusing and warm touches throughout the novel, once again leaving a personal cliffhanger at the end which I can’t wait to see resolve itself!
Personal considerations aside, The Janus Stone is a satisfying mystery novel, involving fascinating information about ancient gods and ritual practices, and a set of multilayered conundrums which have to be teased out in time as well as in place. In some ways, the plot is too similar to that of the first novel, and I hope that in future the author might develop some of the rather sketchy aspects outside of her archaeological dig scenes-of-crime-and-violence, in order to broaden her themes a bit – perhaps she could reveal more about Ruth’s daily university life, which is only vaguely sketched in the first two novels. There is also a dearth of suspects in The Janus Stone, although the crime plot is certainly well-thought-out, no complaints there, and the build-up of tension as well as the thriller climax are well done.
The two main protagonists of these novels, Ruth and DCI Harry Nelson, are well-rounded and engaging individuals, whose differences contribute to their friendship and collaboration, as well as to the readers interest in them. In The Janus Stone, we are introduced to some more of Nelson’s police colleagues, and a couple of Ruth’s associates from the first novel make further appearances. So there is plenty of opportunity for this gifted author (pictured) to broaden her canvas in future. I hope she will do so, because I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Janus Stone and would like to know more about Ruth’s world and what happens regarding Nelson, as this oddly matched pair encounter further crimes and trouble.
I thank the publisher, Quercus, for sending me a copy of this novel, which was published in the UK in February 2010. Other reviews of The Janus Stone (all positive!):
Euro Crime (Pat Austin)
Independent (Jane Jakeman) (review contains spoilers about Ruth's personal life)
The Star (Canada)