The Janus Stone [Book Review]

Janus Stone

That I missed the first installment of the Ruth Galloway Crime series wasn’t a deterrent at all. In her follow-up The Janus Stone, Norfolk [England] police find a child’s body under a threshold at a demolition site and a cat skeleton elsewhere at the same location. What links the two sets of bones: headless. No skulls. An archaeological dig outside of town provides a nice counterpoint and plenty of information about Roman and Celtic burial rites and sacrifices. Janus is the two-faced Roman God, simultaneously looking forward and backward, the god of doorways and boundaries; once sacrifices were offered to him, buried under doorways. Hence the title. But the bones at the construction site are much more recent. Forensic archaeologist—bones expert—Ruth Galloway is called in to consult.

Part mystery/detective story with a healthy splash of soap opera, The Janus Stone is a fast, intelligent read. The relationship elements (which guy for Ruth? Police detective Nelson? Archaeologist Max? Druid Cathbad? A question complicated by her first-term unrevealed pregnancy. . .) are mostly dramatic seasoning and only occasionally stray into comedy/melodrama, as in the climactic scene when the three leading men all join forces to confront the villain.

The present-tense voice is fresh and the multiple characters’ viewpoints are expertly handled.  Griffiths portrays an England where Protestant/Catholic tensions and biases are still acknowledged, counterpointed by Ruth’s scientific agnosticism and Cathbad’s paganism, painted in wry humor. (“You don’t have to be religious to be Catholic,” Nelson claims at one point [45], and Ruth is disinterested in what she calls “the age-old struggle between Catholic and Protestant.” Although, she concedes, “Catholicism has nicer pictures” [79].) Priest Father Hennessey is portrayed sympathetically, which is to say as human.  Even Ruth’s staunchly Born-Again parents come around to compassionately accept her illegitimate pregnancy. It’s a nice balance, completely free of authorial bias.

Although Cathbad might be the most interesting character of the lot. Generally clad in purple druidic robes, he has an uncanny sixth-sense and susses out Ruth’s pregnancy—and the identity of the father—with an unexplainable intuition. In the penultimate dramatic scene, as Nelson and Cathbad are racing to rescue a kidnapped Ruth, Cathbad is preternaturally calm:

                        Nelson reaches forty miles an hour before he has backed out. . .but, beside him, Cathbad is calm and serene. He is the only person Nelson has met who is not terrified by his driving . . . . Nelson puts the siren on and they weave madly between lanes . . . [while] . . . Cathbad hums a Celtic folk song (292).

He even puts on a black shirt for the funeral which follows identification of the child’s body: none of the religious characters are caricatures.  It’s wonderfully refreshing.

Smart, humorous, and well-paced, with an appropriate and intriguing subplot (although again, the subplot veers toward soap operatic), The Janus Stone is a good read. The focus on relationship elements skews it more to a female audience, but it is nowhere near the romance genre and is firmly a female-oriented who-dunnit.

One quibble: no self-respecting druid would celebrate Imbolc on May 23, even if Cathbad does acknowledge that “the weather’s been so bad . . .I don’t expect Brigid will mind” (50).  I assume that the author is trying to tie [saint and/or goddess] Brigid’s threshold connections to Janus in order to provide thematic unity. As bloggist Jan Richardson reminds: “Brigid was known as a bridge-builder and a threshold figure, symbolized in the story that tells that her mother, Broicsech, gave birth to her as she crossed through the doorway into her house.” And despite my neo-pagan familiarity, I can’t actually confirm if pagans really do dance around a bonfire (so is it possible there is a touch of caricature—or merely that everyone loves bonfires?) but the inclusion of families and children at the bonfire was realistic.  Bonus: they didn’t dance ‘skyclad’ or as my friend would say ‘bucky tale nekkid’.

A strong, entertaining read.