‘The Janus Stone’ by Elly Griffiths

The Janus Stone is quite typical of crime and light thriller formulas: there’s a bit of unsubtle foreshadowing and I have my usual personal issues with dialogue and the overuse of the present tense. But that’s not why I read the thing; I’m looking at this not as a regular reader of this type of fiction, but as an archaeologist. Unlike other books I’ve read that dabble in archaeological and forensic themes, The Janus Stone did not have me screaming and fuming and itching to draft acerbic letters to the author. This was surprising and refreshing.

In this second novel of the series, Ruth Galloway is a Forensic Archaeologist who liaises with the local police – and just happens to be pregnant. There is more than one love interest for her, and at the start of the novel more than one suspect for fatherhood. It is this drama that is central to the story; the pregnancy and self-identity of Ruth. The archaeological incidents and investigation deal with infanticide and concepts of family and Christianity that tie into Ruth’s parents’ and past lover’s attitudes towards parenting and relationships. This sort of story isn’t really my cup of tea either, but it is a relief to see more accurate than average archaeology being used as symbolism for a character journey than the alternate that we see far too often: forensic and archaeological trivia being wilfully misinterpreted to serve for greater plot impact.

There are some slip-ups. Once, at a location quite transparently based upon ‘Seahenge’ – a real life beach site with a circle of wooden posts surrounding a central inverted oak stump – the visual description seems to accidentally suggest that in recent history the wooden posts were tall and magnificent looking. I suspect this references an occurrence in the first book, which I have not read, but even allowing for fiction it seems quite unlikely that wooden posts near a beach could have possibly lasted so long and not been noticed and heritage listed or studied earlier. “Seahenge” itself was only discovered due to erosion and luck; the only remaining wood had been protected below the surface from oxygen, sunlight and visitors.

At several times I was confused concerning the human remains and descriptions of lab procedures. Vagueness has protected against inaccuracy here; dialogue and statements of conclusions obfuscate most of the procedures that might be needed to assess or confirm conclusions. While my hackles rose during the post-mortem investigation of the female child’s remains, I could not for example assert that they had not measured the right markers and used the best methods because apart from basic statements these were not described. My main complaint was really when excavating the child’s body – having already noted that the body was buried while articulated – Galloway suspects in vague bone-related terms that it might be a secondary burial. This does make sense given the final revelations of the murder and deposition of the body, but the description of Galloway’s assessment lacked enough of a description to avoid confusion regarding methods and bio-deterioration.

What I liked most about the book was the endnotes. Griffiths acknowledges her sources and assistance. She admits that she is married to an archaeologist. But most importantly she acknowledges that she has taken liberties and possibly introduced errors into her own work. The most repulsive thing to many Classicists and historians about The Da Vinci Code was the inaccurate assertions in the flyleaf of the book that all cited documents were true and accurate when they were not.

Not only is Griffiths honest and up-front about her research and resources, but she’s done a pretty all right job of bringing some good (albeit somewhat vague) localised archaeological theory and practices into the world of crime fiction. There are snippets of glimpses into very British cultural heritage concerns and academia that intrigued me and kept me reading despite this not being my preferred genre. It might not have been perfect, but it was certainly fun, and I’m quite glad that I took the time to read it.


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