The House at Sea's End, By Elly Griffiths

Digging up some well worn thrills
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The Independent Culture

Elly Griffiths has already shown that an acute sense of place is a determining factor in her crime fiction. In The House at Sea's End, she conjures the bleak north Norfolk coast, using its coastal erosion as a metaphor for the decay of human sympathy.

A modern mystery is thrown up when archaeologists unearth corpses from the Second World War. The crumbling cliffs have brought to light six buried bodies, and forensics specialist Ruth Galloway finds herself assigned to the case along with DCI Harry Nelson. Tests reveal that the deaths date from six decades earlier, and further investigation reveals something called Project Lucifer, a 1940s initiative to halt Germany. What's more, Galloway and Nelson discover that a blood oath was taken by members of the Home Guard to keep some dangerous wartime secrets from ever coming to light. Then a German reporter visiting the area is murdered; proof that someone living is keen to keep the secrets of the past firmly buried.

Underneath the familiar strategies of the crime novel, there are still possibilities for innovative thinking. Although Griffiths exploits one of the key clichés of the genre – the tenacious female forensics expert – she more than makes up for this with plotting of marked rigour and a sense of menace.

Her publisher makes much of the fact that Griffiths draws some of her inspiration from her husband, an archaeologist, and that further stimulus came from an aunt who lives on the Norfolk coast and who fed the young Griffiths mysterious stories. In fact, the real source of inspiration lies in her own reading. She's a Wilkie Collins aficionado, and channels that master's grasp of exactly how much to reveal to the reader – and when – for the perfect ratio of anticipation, shock and surprise. Similarly, another literary template is Collins's über-villain, Count Fosco: an echo of his malign presence haunts the narrative here (as it did, indirectly, in the author's debut, The Crossing Places).

Yet you may find déjà vu kept at bay by spending some time in the eponymous house at Sea's End. There is a baroque flourish to Elly Griffiths's writing that more than makes up for her occasional stray into well-worn territory. Perhaps she can be persuaded to send her forensic anthropologist heroine on holiday for a while and fashion a protagonist whom we haven't met before.

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