Right, first problem: the book is written in third person present tense (‘she sighs..., she eats..., she puts...’). I daresay the author has perfectly sensible reasons for this stylistic choice, but I really hate it. It grates on me, and gets between me and the story. I don’t know how commonplace this is, but it feels pretentious. And even though I sort of got used to it, every few pages there'd be another phrase that felt awkward, and I'd get annoyed all over again.
For those who can put up with it, though, this turns out to be a hugely enjoyable book. It's a fairly conventional mystery - ten years ago a child vanished, never to be seen again, and now another child has vanished - a plot which must have been done, with variations, a million times over the years. What makes this one different is the setting - a very evocative piece of eastern England, with salt marshes, an eerily empty landscape and lots and lots of weather, lashing rain, howling gales, crashing thunderstorms, you name it.
The other big attraction is the main character, Ruth Galloway, a large, frumpy (and not bothered about it) archaeologist, more interested in her prehistoric finds than in other people. Ruth is intelligent, self-sufficient and independent, needs her cats more than she needs a man, and when she gets into trouble she's perfectly capable of getting herself out of it. Thank goodness for a strong female character who's not skinny or beautiful or unnaturally competent - you know, just a perfectly normal woman. She has her moments of self-doubt, of course, but when she's down she's just as likely to turn to a female friend as to a bloke. And she's funny, in a genuinely laugh-out-loud way. I totally loved her.
The policeman on the case, Harry Nelson, is a slightly generic grumpy cop, but he too is very likeable, in his way, and the relationship between the two is very believable. The other characters don't have much screen time so they tend to be a bit cardboard, but they aren't over-the-top cartoonish, and even the walk-on parts are fine. And the plot burbles along nicely.
Now, the second big problem is the ending, on several levels. I know it's standard nowadays for this sort of story to reach a climax with a hugely dramatic incident, with the protagonist in all sorts of danger, but honestly, that gets terribly tedious. There's actually a lot to be said for the old fashioned approach: Hercules Poirot exercises his leetle grey cells, summons all the suspects into the drawing room and reveals with a flourish that Lady Cynthia and the housemaid are long-lost twins separated at birth, that the mysterious woman on the landing was in fact the Honourable Hugh in a blonde wig trying to find the secret room, and the dagger was hidden in the aspidistra pot all the time. But no, what we get here is half the characters milling improbably about in a storm in the middle of the night. Yawn. And as for the big look-what-I've-found reveal - no. Just no. Completely impossible location.
And yet, despite these issues, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Partly it's the character of Ruth herself (and honestly, I totally identified with her, in innumerable little ways, and I rarely do that with fictional characters). Partly it's the humour, which improves any book, in my opinion. And partly it's that indefinable something that makes a story completely believable - characters react to events in a normal way, don't make stupid decisions, ask all the right questions, agonise over the things that really should worry them (but not too much) and in general behave like normal rational human beings. There are more books in the series, which I shall definitely be getting. Four stars.