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A team of archaeologists, investigating coastal erosion on the north Norfolk coast, unearth six bodies buried at the foot of a cliff.
How long have they been there? What could have happened to them?
Forensics expert Ruth Galloway and DCI Nelson are drawn together again to unravel the past. Tests reveal that the bodies have lain, preserved in the sand, for sixty years.
The mystery of their deaths stretches back to the Second World War, a time when Great Britain was threatened by invasion. But someone wants the truth of the past to stay buried, and will go to any lengths to keep it that way… even murder.
Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels take for their inspiration Elly’s husband, who gave up a city job to train as an archaeologist, and her aunt who lives on the Norfolk coast and who filled her niece’s head with the myths and legends of that area. Elly has two children and lives near Brighton. The House at Sea’s End is her third crime novel.
Caroline Butler: Your novels have all been set in Norfolk, why is it so important for you as a writer?
Elly Griffiths: Norfolk is where I went on holiday as a child. My aunt lives there and I have many happy memories of spending time on her boat, drifting along the Broads while Marge told ghost stories about the places on the way. Now I go with my children – Marge still has the same boat and the same stories! It was my husband though who gave me the idea for my first Norfolk book, The Crossing Places. We were walking over Titchwell Marsh on the North Norfolk coast and he happened to mention that prehistoric man saw marshland as sacred – because it’s neither land nor sea but something in-between, they saw it as a kind of bridge to the afterlife. Neither land nor sea, neither life nor death. The entire plot of The Crossing Places came to me in that instant.
Caroline Butler: Ruth is such a real character – is she based on someone you know?
Elly Griffiths: No, though I do share some of her characteristics such as a love for Bruce Springsteen, cats and food. But, really, Ruth just appeared out of the mist that day on Titchwell Marsh. I’m very fond of her though and am delighted that people seem to have taken her to their hearts.
Caroline Butler: How much research do you have to do into all things forensic and how do you approach it?
Elly Griffiths: My husband is an archaeologist and he has a friend who is a forensic archaeologist. She has been a great help. I do try to talk to people who are actually working in forensics. You get little details from people that you would never get from books or the internet. I once spoke to a policeman who talked about the ‘smell’ of crime. That really impressed me and I used it in The Janus Stone.
Caroline Butler: Some writers often speak of a certain amount of pressure to get the forensic details right, especially with the growth of the Internet. Is that something you worry about much?
Elly Griffiths: I do worry because I’m not an expert. I tell myself that you can know too much and load your books with unnecessary details. I think I know just enough to give a picture of an archaeologist’s work – I hope so anyway.
Caroline Butler: The mystery at the heart of The House At Sea’s End is set during the Second World War and amongst members of the Home Guard, what drew you to that era in particular?
Elly Griffiths: I remember seeing the film Went the day Well and thinking how terrifying it was. The fear of invasion was very real and is maybe something we’ve forgotten. I wanted to write a book about the Home Guard that included this darkness. They were prepared to defend our coast with their lives and it stands to reason that they were prepared to kill as well.
Caroline Butler: A lot of the scenes from Dad’s Army were filmed around the Norfolk coast was that a coincidence?
Elly Griffiths: No! I didn’t know that! It doesn’t surprise me though- lots of small seaside towns (including the one I live in) don’t seem to have changed much since the 1930s…
Caroline Butler: You’re a self confessed fan of Wilkie Collins, do you think his approach to creating suspense or characterisation has fed into your own work at all?
Elly Griffiths: I hope so. I’m a huge Wilkie Collins fan and don’t think anyone has ever described locations or characters better. Think of the Shivering Sands in The Moonstone, for example. There’s also a line in No Name (one of my favourite Collins books) that seems to sum up the whole of forensic crime fiction: ‘Nothing in the world is hidden forever, sand turns traitor and betrays the footstep that has passed over it…’ I think of that every time I write.
Caroline Butler: The first book in the series, the Janus Stone, saw Ruth studying a Roman excavation whilst this one sees her investigating the second world war. Any clues as to “when” Ruth might be taken next?
Elly Griffiths: I’ve just finished writing Book 4. It’s called A Room Full of Bones and is about Aborigine remains. Ruth doesn’t go to Australia though – a shame since I would have enjoyed the research! These bones are in a Norfolk museum but there are people who would kill to return them to their ancestral land.
Caroline Butler: Did you always want to become a writer?
Elly Griffiths: Yes. I wrote my first book when I was eleven. It was called The Hair of the Dog and was a murder mystery set in Rottingdean, the village where I still live. I’ve lost the end of it but I think the vicar did it. I wrote a lot at school, studied English at university and then went to work in publishing. Funnily enough, though, this put me off writing for many years. I worked for one of the biggest publishing companies and, though I loved the job, it was all about money and profit. It wasn’t until I was on maternity leave, thirteen years ago, that I remembered why I had wanted to be an author.
Caroline Butler: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?
Elly Griffiths: Keep writing. Finish the book. I know loads of people who have started a book but very few who have finished one. If you have finished a book, you can call yourself a writer.