Book: A Room Full of Bones
Author: Elly Griffiths
Summary: When Ruth Galloway arrives to supervise the opening of a coffin containing the bones of a medieval bishop, she finds the museum's curator lying dead on the floor. Soon after, the museum wealthy owner is also found dead, in his stables. These two deaths could be from natural causes, but once again Ruth and DCI Harry Nelson cross paths during the investigation. When threatening letters come to light, events take an even more sinister turn. But as Ruth's friends become involved, where will her loyalties lie? As her convictions are tested, Ruth and Nelson must discover how Aboriginal skulls, drug smuggling, and the mystery of "The Dreaming" hold the answers to these deaths, as well as the keys to their own survival. -Mariner Books, 2012.
I'm sorry again for being so late in getting this review out. This book was very easy to read in terms of technical ability, but, in terms of enjoying it, this book was a trial.
I'm afraid I'll have to use spoilers this time in order to explain some of my problems with the book so if you don't want to be spoiled, you may not want to read this review. Also, there's going to be some heavy language in here.That being said, let's begin.
It's hard to describe my feelings about this book in a way that isn't completely unkind. To put it simply, if I thought Carolyn Hart's Dare to Die was the worst mystery novel I've ever read, I made a huge mistake. Dare to Die was better than this. I once again took the gamble of reading a book that's in the middle of a series. This time, I gambled poorly.
I'll begin with the tense that Griffiths chose to write in. She writes in simple present, which, to my memory, I have not encountered in a published novel in my life. It's possible that I may have encountered it in some novels I read as a child, but I highly doubt it. Regardless, it bothered me immensely. I felt like I was more of a omnipresent observer looking over the events of the story, rather than being immersed in it and feeling as if I was experiencing the events with the characters. Because of that, I felt absolutely no connection to the characters at all. I couldn't sympathize or empathize with any of the events in the story and that can be a huge problem when your audience can't even lose themselves in your story.
I'm also going to borrow from the Guest Column on Brian Klem's The Writer's Dig on The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in the Present Tense to help explain my issues with the choice of present tense for a mystery novel.
First, the Guest writer on Klem's column says that present tense restricts our ability to manipulate time. This is painfully obvious whenever Griffiths tries to talk about a past event. Instead of having the ability to seamlessly move between a memory/recollection and a present moment, she's restricted to talking about the memory in a way that sounds childish. It doesn't even sound like a memory - it sounds like it's something that is going on right now so it confuses the reader.
Next, the Guest writer says that it is more difficult to create complex characters using present tense.This is painfully true in this case. The characters in this story had no personality. Besides the fact that this wasn't even a mystery novel and more of a soap opera drama with a side helping of supernatural deus ex machina and a haphazardly constructed murder plot, the characters were one-dimensional and stereotypical. Ruth, the supposed main character of the novel, is barely involved in the mystery and is annoying to the point where removing her from the novel would've been an improvement. More on that later. She's the fish-out-of-water single mom who is torn between hating and desiring the baby's father. I believe she does her actual job only in one scene in the entire book. Nelson is the father of Ruth's one-night-stand-miracle-child torn between his desire for Ruth and his love for his wife. All of Nelson's co-workers are your standard cop drama investigators. We've got the hero-worshiper cop, the lady cop no one takes seriously and is undermined at every turn, the wise crack cop, and the coroner whose only purpose is to crack a witticism, explain how the victim died, and leave. Cathbad is the Drosselmeyer-like druid who turns out to be the ultimate deus ex machina. More on that later. All in all, these characters have no blood.
The most important note in relation to this story is that, as the guest writer says, the present tense can diminish suspense. A mystery novel's life blood requires suspense. When scary things were happening in the novel, particularly in the novel's climax, there was absolutely no feeling that there were stakes involved. There was no feeling of danger or urgency, even when two characters were being chased on a foggy estate by the culprit! The very idea of that is terrifying, but when written in present tense, I didn't get any sense of terror whatsoever. There were many scenes that could've been written better if the book was in past tense. I would've actually been more concerned and disturbed had there actually been some genuine suspense involved. You can't have a good mystery without good suspense and that's one of the many reasons this book was a bad mystery.
Finally, the guest writer says that the use of present tense encourages us to include trivial events that serve no plot function simply because such events would actually happen in the naturalistic sequence of time. Reading this point made so many of the book's events make sense to me. I kept thinking, 'Why on earth is the author spending so much time on Ruth's morning routine with her kid than on the actual mystery? Why am I seeing so little of the solving of the mystery?' Like I said before, because the plot was more like a soap opera, the author spends little time on the actual solving of the mystery and more on Ruth and Nelson's daily routines. So much of the book was extra fluff that cutting it all away to only include information relative to the mystery would reduce the book to the size of a novella.
The most important thing though is that Griffiths doesn't show. She tells. Ruth feels this. Nelson thinks that. What happened to describing body language or writing actions that show how the character is thinking or feeling instead of just telling the reader? This also is a giant hint to me that the writer isn't very good. Normally, I can forgive that if the story is interesting enough, but it wasn't this time around.
Ruth as a character annoyed me a lot. She couldn't decide whether she wanted to be a strong, independent woman who don't need no man or a weepy, pining ex-lover who wants her one night stand to become more than that. Griffiths also tried WAY too hard to convince us that Ruth is an atheist. I get it Griffiths. Ruth is anti-religion because her parents are hardcore religious zealots. I don't need to be reminded of this every chapter. The more you say it, the more I'm thinking that Ruth is trying to convince herself that she hates religion more than it actually being a reality. It's not good writing when we have to be bashed over the head with this fact every chapter; sometimes multiple times in a chapter. Also, the cover literally says "A Ruth Galloway Mystery". How can it be a Ruth Galloway mystery when she doesn't even investigate or solve said mystery? This is the first (and only book) I've read in the series. Is she always a passive player like this or does she actually get involved in the mysteries of the previous books? If anyone knows, please feel free to tell me as I genuinely am curious.
As for the mystery itself...I think the mystery was figuring out what genre Griffiths decided to go with here since it couldn't honestly be called a mystery. The murders were a background to Ruth and Nelson's domestic troubles and they don't even do much in the way of the mystery. Nelson does more than Ruth, but he's ultimately deprived of the pleasure of solving the mystery because he falls mysteriously ill in the third act.
Now, here's the part with spoilers and strong language involved. Nelson becomes deathly ill while on a trip with his wife to celebrate his birthday and to try to patch up their marriage. The reader might think he's been poisoned like the museum curator and the museum owner. Is that the case? No. Instead, we're told by Cathbad that Nelson was ACCIDENTALLY CURSED. Nelson is stuck in "The Dreaming". The Dreaming, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is a period of time that has no beginning or end and where creation and life were first formed. It's part of Aboriginal mythology. For Griffiths' purposes, the Dreaming is the Aboriginal mystical space between life and death - limbo basically. Cathbad has to go save Nelson by taking drugs and entering the spirit world to save him. He succeeds and saves Nelson, but we're also told that Nelson saw a mutual friend of his and Ruth's guarding the doorway to the afterlife.
My reaction was to literally shout, "What the fuck?!" Griffiths, you can't take what appears to be a contemporary setting with no firmly established confirmation of magic and the supernatural being real and expect readers to accept MAGIC as the reason for the deaths of the victims and the near death of a main character. You cannot pull some magical bullshit deus ex machina without establishing magic as a legitimate part of the world that you're writing in! What, Judeo-Christian and Eastern religions are implausible, but paganism/nature religions are legitimate? You spend this whole story telling us that your main character is an atheist, implying that magic and the supernatural have no legitimacy in this world, but you use magic and religion as the reason for the deaths? That's not how storytelling works! If anyone read this ending and accepted it as believable, I would be speechless. I cannot believe Griffiths won a Mary Higgins Clark award. I cannot believe that more than one person thought she was a good enough writer to win an actual award. It honestly baffles me.
After all of this, I can only say that I deeply regret reading this book and that I will never read any of Griffiths' books again.
For all of the reasons listed above, I give A Room Full of Bones a D.
For the first time ever on this blog, I am not recommending purchasing the book. If you want to subject yourself to this book, please borrow it. I wouldn't buy it. It's not worth the money.
The book I'm reading next is also not turning out the way I hoped, but it's not as bad as this so, hopefully I'll be out with the next review sooner than later.
Thanks for reading.