The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths
It is a privilege to review this book as it is by one of my parishioners, and I happened to be leading the pilgrimage to Walsingham when Elly was there researching the place, the story and the topography. I am grateful for a mention in the book’s acknowledgements for taking her on tours behind the scenes and suggesting places where murders might happen.
The Woman in Blue is the sixth Ruth Galloway novel and this one is set in Walsingham. Ruth is an archaeologist who is seconded to the local police, assisting DCI Nelson and his team. The stories are all set in Norfolk and involve off-scene crimes, without the graphic details we might get in other series. Ruth has a difficult relationship with Nelson, after an earlier affair which resulted in a child, Kate, now five and at school.
There is a regular team of likeable characters, including Cathbad the Druid, who swans around the fields in a purple cloak at the best of times.
Spirituality raises its head gently in the issues of life and death that are faced, and the encounter with religious types. Ruth is an avowed atheist whose born-again parents drive her up the wall. Cathbad is a lapsed Catholic who cannot let go of the childhood rituals and stories, despite being full of New Age thinking.
Nelson is also a lapsed Catholic and former altar boy who finds the old faith seeping past his defences at various points. So, for example, in Walsingham he is present at an open-air Mass and finds himself picking up the old responses and actions as if he has never left. He sneaks around the Slipper Chapel to investigate some details and finds himself putting an intentions slip in the box for his daughters. Ruth struggles, meanwhile with the images of suffering in the Stations of the Cross and cannot fathom why religious people want to make so much of misery.
Elly Griffiths has her finger on the pulse. These are real people, reacting how people really react. There are delinquent priests and Religious, but there are positive, honest types as well, particularly the character of the aged Catholic priest, Fr Hennessey, whom Ruth allows to baptise her child and can confide in.
The present story is quite a page-turner and Elly has researched Walsingham well, so that it is in front of your eyes and in your imagination as you read. There are a few fanciful details such as the presence of the rehab centre, the Sanctuary, and a conference centre where a group of women priests attend for “Preparing for Episcopacy”.
There are more Anglican women clergy in collars around the place today, that is true, but I don’t think they would have the power or temerity to host such a conference in the village yet. Women priests may not celebrate the Eucharist in the Anglican shrine, but they can act as deacons and can also anoint the sick (which is quite illogical given that this is a presbyterial function, but never mind).
A recovering drug addict and model, Chloe, is found dead in a blue nightgown, and later, one of the women priests is also laid out near the site of the original Holy House. Secrets and relationships are unravelled, ending up with a brotherhood of the lactating Virgin and surprise denouements.
This is well worth a read from a faithful parishioner who animates Walsingham superbly and comes out with many witticisms about women priests along the way. To give one example, when Ruth tells the cocktail-guzzling, gossipy female clerics that she doesn’t need a man, she has a child and a cat, thank you, the comment is made: “It turns out that, if there’s one thing women priests love more than cocktails, it’s cats.” Not my quip, but Ruth’s, but I could not help but allow a smile.