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Onyx reviews: The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths

One of the joys in reading a mystery novel is trying to figure out the identity of the killer. This is particularly difficult in The Janus Stone because the identity of the murder victim isn't revealed until well into the second half of the book. No one even knows whether the skeleton found under a portal at a demolition/construction site in Norfolk, England is from the modern era or dates back to the time of the Romans. The fact that it is headless tilts the balance in favor of something from antiquity, but it wouldn't be much of a murder mystery if the crime was committed 1500 years ago.

However, the historical connection does justify bringing forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway into the story. It is interesting that an expert of her caliber is unable to determine quickly whether the body is relatively new or ancient. When the police, led by Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, discover that a boy and a girl ran away nearly four decades ago from the orphanage that once occupied the site, the natural conclusion is that the skeleton belongs to the little girl. The priest who ran the orphanage is the inevitable suspect.

The mystery of the skeleton lumbers along, with its resolution motivated by the proddings of the wealthy Spens family, who are trying to build condominiums on the site, The occasional new clues muddy the waters more than they clarify them. For example, when the head is ultimately located, forensic dentistry shows that the type of fluoride in the teeth predates the missing children, so the investigators are back to square one. Another young girl died in the appropriate timeframe, but her body is accounted for. However, someone wants to scare Ruth off the case, so there's somebody living who still cares about keeping the body's identity a secret.

Ruth is a somewhat frumpy character. Moderately overweight, forty-something, lacking in style, intelligent and articulate but fundamentally insecure. The major subplot involves her pregnancy. The father is happily married, and Ruth's decision to keep the child estranges her from her religious parents. The plight of the little dead girl affects her particularly, because of her condition. She also finds herself attracted to another archeologist who is working at a nearby site. 

Griffiths makes a number of references to incidents from The Crossing Places, sometimes without bothering to make sure readers unfamiliar with the first book in the series are properly oriented. The book is broken up by brief scenes that are presumably from the point of view of the killer, who is obsessed with Roman and other pagan mythologies. The date of these entries is limited to the month and not the year, as that might give away too much, and the gender of the focus of these vignettes is also masked. Ultimately these passages contribute little to the story and feel like they were added to pad out the novel to a more acceptable length.

There is a good hodge-podge of supporting characters, including a colorful Druid named Cathbad who pops in from time to time. The mist-cloaked salt marshes call to mind the muddy moors of Wuthering Heights. Griffiths brings in an unexpected coincidence near the end that may not sit well with all readers, but there is an atmospheric climax that makes full use of the setting's fogs. The author's decision to write the novel in the present tense can be disarming at times. Present tense seems to work better in short works. 

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