How children’s author Elly Griffiths turned to a life of crime

Domenica de Rosa whose literary alter-ego is Elly Griffiths. Picture by Sara Reeve.
Domenica de Rosa whose literary alter-ego is Elly Griffiths. Picture by Sara Reeve.
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The chair of this summer’s Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate talks to Julian Cole.

“I’m five foot two-and-a-half,” says Domenica on the phone from Brighton. “But Elly is definitely taller.”

Domenica laughs as she tells this tall story. As for the two names, Elly Griffiths is the alter-ego Domenica settled on when she started writing crime novels and the height is her way of differentiating between the two,

Elly is chairing this summer’s Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. She is a regular at the popular crime festival, which she always enjoys attending.

“I love it, I really do,” she says, pointing out that crime writers live a solitary life and love socialising at Harrogate, one of the friendliest festivals around.

“The thing about crime is that the people are just so very nice,” she says. “The readers are very interested in the books and like to read new books by authors they don’t know. And crime writers are friendly – they spend their days with death and destruction, but they are lovely.

“So much jollier than children’s authors.”

Elly used to be editorial director for children’s books at HarperCollins, so she should know, not that she’s naming names or anything. Being asked to chair the Harrogate crime festival was a surprise. “They usually have so many big names,” she says. “Last year it was Peter James.”

For a while she suffered “an attack of imposter syndrome”, but has been enjoying the role. As one of her main characters is an archaeologist, she was pleased to land Kathy Reichs, forensic archaeologist and author of countless bestsellers of a forensic bent. “I’m really excited about Kathy Reichs,” she says.

Other highlights include an exhibition celebrating the life and writing of Agatha Christie, calling on rare photographs and documents from the author’s archives – a treat for Elly, a big fan.

She has high hopes for the festival. “It’s going to be a great year. It’s a year of anniversaries in a way, 30 years of Rebus, 20 years of Reacher.”

Ian Rankin, a festival regular, will celebrate his three decades of Rebus, while Lee Child will mark 20 years of Reacher – who, at 6ft 5ins, is a lot taller than Domenica or Elly.

Lee is a big fan of the Yorkshire festival, saying: “The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Festival is the best in the world and I know, because I’ve done all of them.”

From TV’s Pointless comes the even loftier Richard Osman – two inches taller even than Reacher – who will lead a late-night chat session with Val McDermid, Mark Billingham and Lee Child.

Elly is a prolific author, having started writing what she calls ‘women’s fiction’ under her own name before switching to crime. She has two series on the go: the Dr Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson novels, and the Stephens and Mephisto novels, set in the 1950s.

Elly writes two books a year, one from each series, and as we speak has just published the ninth Ruth Galloway novel, The Chalk Pit, and is working on the tenth, The Dark Angel.

McDermid is a fan and says on the cover of The Chalk Pit: “I refuse to apologise for being in love with Dr Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson.”

Elly is thrilled by that, although amused by the “refuse to apologise” bit. She also says that Val told her she put her characters through it a bit. “I think Val probably puts her characters through more,” says Elly.

Set in Norfolk, the Galloway novels present a recurring puzzle for the writer: Each one must feature a crime where the police need to call on an archaeologist. “Otherwise readers say, ‘Oh she’s not doing enough digging’,” says Elly.

A walk across Titchwell Marsh with her husband, who is an archaeologist, initially suggested Norfolk as a setting. “Andy mentioned that prehistoric man thought that marshland was sacred, because it’s neither land or sea, but something in-between. Neither land nor sea, neither life nor death,” she says.

In that moment, Elly saw the plot for The Crossing Place – “And, walking towards me out of the mist, I saw Dr Ruth Galloway.”

That liminal zone between land and sea, where prehistoric man often buried bodies, suited her purposes, and she has found archaeology to be a good fit with crime. “It’s about digging up what’s hidden beneath the surface, digging up clues and excavating the past.”

The Chalk Pit opens with the discovery in a tunnel under Norwich of boiled human bones. These bones turn out to have been recently buried, leading Ruth to work with Nelson once more; and introducing them to an ‘underground’ world that involves the murders of homeless men and the disappearance of three women.

After all these years, Elly knows Ruth well and likes her company. Is she at all like Ruth?

“I always think when creating characters, it’s good to give them some similarities to you,” says Elly, who passed on a love of cats and Bruce Springsteen. Other than that, she is not much like the reclusive Dr Ruth Galloway.

“Someone asked me the other day if Ruth would move to Brighton,” she says. “But I don’t think so because Brighton is a party town and Ruth doesn’t like parties.”

Fans of the novels take a great interest in the tangled union between the protagonists.

“When I ask readers at events about what should happen between Ruth and Nelson – and they are mostly women in a sea of grey heads – they tend to say they shouldn’t get together. ‘She wouldn’t move in with him,’ they say.”

The Dark Angel will break a self-imposed rule. “I said at the beginning there would be no Catholics and no Italians,” says Elly. “But the books are full of Catholics and in this one she goes to Italy.”

Ruth is pulled into another mystery – one that required Elly to think of a way of getting Nelson to Italy. “And I’ve just worked it out,” she says.

When she switched to crime, Domenica was told she needed a new name. She took her pen-name from her grandmother, Ellen Griffiths. “I wanted to be called Ellen, but the publishers thought Elly was a bit younger.”

Sometimes she regrets not seeing her real name on the novels, but mostly she is used to the divide between her writerly and her real self.

Elly has been good to Norfolk and Norfolk has been good to her, and although she has never lived there, she visits often. “Norfolk is beautiful but it is sort of spooky, too.” And that, Elly says, fits the supernatural element of her books,

After finishing The Dark Angel, Elly plans to write a standalone novel but she will return to Norfolk, where there are still bones to be unearthed.

In Harrogate, Elly will lead a session entitled the Dark Side, and will also host an archaeology dinner called Digging up the Past. One course at the dinner will be an archaeological puzzle with a body on the marshes, an ancient curse and a buried secret. Elly will be helped by archaeologist Francis Pryor from the TV show Time Team, an expert on the archaeology of Norfolk.

Elly was nervous when they first met, thinking Francis might have spotted a dreadful error in The Crossing Place. “But he was lovely about the book,” she says, sighing with relief all the way from Brighton.

The Chalk Pit, Quercus 
(£14.99). Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, 
Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, 
July 20-23.