1 November 2021

Author, Elly Griffiths, and the bodies in the North Norfolk saltmarshes

By Rachel Sloane
Elly Griffiths ( by Sara Reed)

There can be few places in East Anglia as atmospheric as the saltmarshes of North Norfolk. With muddy creeks that flood at high tide, dunes, plants and sea birds, when a sea mist comes rolling in, it is easy to imagine it as a spiritual place of mystery and intrigue. Domenica de Rosa, writing as Elly Griffiths, has set her series of books, about the forensic archaeologist, Dr Ruth Galloway, on the Norfolk coast, near to Kings Lyn.  Ruth lives in an isolated cottage next to two houses, one empty and one a holiday home, in a fictional hamlet called Saltmarsh.

“My dad was Italian and Domenica de Rosa is my real name, which is funny as it sounds like a pseudonym,” explained Elly, as she is happy to be called. “Growing up with a rather romantic name like that, I always wanted to be a writer and I wrote my first book, a crime novel, when I was eleven! I wrote my first published book when I was on maternity leave with my twins, who are now twenty-three. I then wrote four books, which were all a sort of women’s fiction (although I don’t like that term), set in Italy.”

“When I got the idea for ‘The Crossing Places’ I didn’t think about it as necessarily ‘crime’ as it had a lot of elements of my Domenica de Rosa books – a strong female character, a sense of place and so on. But my agent said, ‘this is crime, and you need a crime name’”. 

Elly (who has written 24 books under that name), initially chose to be Ellen Griffiths, as it was her grandmother’s name. That was shortened to Elly, as her publisher felt it looked ‘tidier’ on the book cover. 

“When I worked in publishing you always wanted a name from the first part of the alphabet – and ‘e’ is perfect as means that you are placed at eyelevel on a book shop shelf!”  

It was a walk across Titchwell Marsh in Norfolk, with her husband Andy, who had changed careers and trained as an archaeologist, that inspired ‘The Crossing Places’, her first book about Dr Ruth Galloway.  

“It was a chance remark of his that gave me the whole idea for the series. He happened to say that prehistoric people thought that marshland was sacred because it’s neither land nor sea but something in-between, so it was a link to the afterlife and that’s why bodies were sometimes buried there.” 

With an archaeologist husband we can assume that when Elly writes the technical side of Dr Ruth’s work, it is very accurate.

“I’m learning too as I write, so that helps. Carbon dating, isotope testing of bones and teeth, how archaeologists can read the landscape…  I love all that stuff, it’s fascinating!” 

“At first I didn’t know it was going to be a series as I had only had a one book deal. My first four books were stand-alone books, so I had never written a series. I deliberately left the first book ‘The Crossing Places’ on a bit of an emotional cliff-hanger, hoping that people would want to know more. It was very important to me that Ruth would be very competent professionally but that her private life would be so messy. The most wonderful thing for me as a writer has been how readers have empathised with her, particularly over her weight issues. It’s like a secret handshake when we meet! There was a time in crime fiction when the women were super-glamourous, ran 200 miles before breakfast and made gourmet food! I wanted Ruth to be much more like a normal person.”

How well does Elly know Norfolk? 

“My Aunt Marg lived in North Norfolk until recently and she had a boat, moored at Reedham. Growing up, we spent every summer there and I got to know that area very well. I was there last February and this last year has been the only year I haven’t been. Funnily enough, the book I wrote in lockdown, ‘The Night Hawks’ is in a way the more Norfolk-y of my books. It’s full of local legend. I wonder if that is because I was missing it so much?”

Thirteen Dr Ruth Galloway books later, it can seem amazing how many dead bodies can be found buried in a small part of Norfolk. The plots include archaeological finds such as a wooden henge, stone circles, etc, and also involve local locations and current day police investigations.

“The reason I chose Norfolk is that the county (and Suffolk too) is so rich in archaeology and so I can range across the centuries – the millennia really. The first book has Bronze Age, the second is Roman and the third has Second World War remains…. Norfolk is just so full of bodies!”

Elly has written 28 books, including the Dr Ruth Galloway series. Some are standalone novels, there are three children’s books, four in Italy and another murder series set in 1950’s Brighton. She writes two books a year, writing them consecutively in her garden shed/office, producing a minimum of 1,000 words each morning. The afternoons she spends on administration or teaching.

“I am currently writing the 14th Dr Ruth Galloway book, ‘The Locked Room’ and it’s set in 2020 so will have lockdown in it. I am writing about Tombland and the Grey Lady. People in Norfolk and Suffolk tend to live there for a long time, and they know the local history and want to tell me more when we meet. I live in Brighton and people there are more often passing through and so don’t know the legends in the same way.”

Lockdown has sent most book events online and although Elly has got used to the inevitable online appearances, she prefers meeting face to face.

“I really like book signings and readings and going to book festivals. I’ve been to the Felixstowe Book Festival several times, although this year I am going to be ‘virtually’ there. I love meeting readers, librarians and other writers.” 

Elly’s latest Dr Ruth Galloway book is ‘The Night Hawks” and is about a group of metal detectorists.

“I’ve always wanted to use that as a title but it’s a pejorative term for metal detectorists who aren’t licensed and take things for themselves. (Of course, most metal detectorists are not like that). This group are a little dodgy, going out at night and the book starts off when they find a body on the beach and what turns out to be a Bronze Age body as well, so Ruth is involved as well as DCI Nelson. He is also investigating a murder/suicide at Black Dog Farm. I know Suffolk has Black Shuck, the ghostly dog legends, as well as Norfolk. I think it might be one of my spookier reads.”

With another of her Brighton murder mystery books coming out in November (‘The Midnight Hour’, set in 1965, her sixth in the series) Elly certainly doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon, in her shed in the garden. 

(This article was first published in Suffolk Norfolk Life magazine in June 2021)