How Norfolk - and Weird Norfolk - inspires crime writer Elly Griffiths’ mystery series
- Credit: SARA REEVE PHOTOGRAPHY
Author Elly Griffiths ahead of her appearance on the publication day of her latest Dr Ruth Galloway book: 'I love Weird Norfolk...the old tradition of telling stories and telling them well'
In folklore, they are the ghost lights that mesmerise those who see them - now, Norfolk's Lantern Men have cast their spell over author Elly Griffiths who has made them the star of her latest book.
The twelfth of her Dr Ruth Galloway series, The Lantern Men sees her heroine abandoning Norfolk for Cambridge ("not for long, don't worry!" laughs Elly).
She has a new job, home and partner and has left North Norfolk police and her role with them as a forensic archaeologist behind: until convicted murderer Amyas March offers to make DCI Nelson a deal.
Nelson has always been convinced that March killed more women than he was charged with and now the murderer has confirmed it and promised to show the detective where the bodies are buried - but only if Ruth does the digging.
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Curious but wary, Ruth agrees as March confides that he killed four more women and that their bodies are buried near a village bordering the Fens, said to be haunted by The Lantern Men, mysterious figures that hold lights luring travellers to their deaths.
But is Amyas March holding the lantern that tempts Ruth back to Norfolk? Why is she so crucial to his plan? Have the murders really come to an end?
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For Elly - real name Dominica de Rosa - the marshes are where her writing career began and where Ruth was born.
It's a tale she has told many times before, of when she and husband Andy (Maxted) were walking with their family across Titchwell Marsh when he mentioned the fact that prehistoric people thought marshland was sacred because it's neither sea nor land but something 'other'.
They believed, she says, that it was linked to the afterlife. As he said it, Ruth - rather than a Lantern Man - appeared as a fully-formed character from a bank of mist.
"It really happened," says Elly, "she really just arrived from out of the mist and there she was, and here we are, years later with Ruth and The Lantern Men."
Weird Norfolk, the EDP's resident gatekeepers of strange and mysterious happenings in the county, have written about Lantern Men extensively in the past, the pale, flickering lights which appear to be dancing across marshlands in darkness.
Norfolk man Joseph Bexfield was lured to his death by a Will o' the Wisp as he returned to his wherry to retrieve a parcel before walking home to his family at Thurlton: as recently as the 1950s, locals still believed that the ghost of Joseph could still be seen drifting across the marshes on dark, misty nights.
"I love Weird Norfolk and the way you are keeping stories alive, I always enjoy reading them and following you on Instagram," said Elly, who has given Weird Norfolk a credit in The Lantern Men"Whenever I am in Norfolk I am always struck by how much folklore people there know about and I think that's largely down to what you do.
"It's the old tradition of telling stories and telling them well, something that other parts of the country are losing. I think it's important these stories aren't lost, they're part of what makes us all who we are."
Our mutual appreciation of Norfolk's weird and wonderful folklore and tales of the unexpected leads Elly and I down some strange paths as we discuss the abundance of oddities yet to be mined by either her or Weird Norfolk.
"I am so grateful to Norfolk for giving me all these amazing stories and for the people of the county who have received them with such wonderful kindness," said Elly, who lives near Brighton.
"I used to visit the county when I was a child and my Aunt Marjorie (Scott-Robinson) would take me on her boat on the Broads and tell me ghost stories, quite scary ones, actually, but we'd always beg her to tell us more!
"There will never be a time when I am searching for inspiration when it comes to setting my books in Norfolk, because it is so full of wonderful stories and there are still so many for Ruth to unearth."
The whole Dr Ruth Galloway Mystery series - which along with Ms Griffiths' Stephens & Mephisto book series led to her winning the 2016 Crime Writers' Association Dagger in the Library Award for an author's whole body of work - has seen her central character take quite a veritable Weird Norfolk tour of the county.
The Outcast Dead starts with Dr Galloway excavating a body from the grounds of Norwich Castle while The Woman In Blue takes her to Walsingham.
A Room Full Of Bones begins on Halloween night in King's Lynn, The House At Sea's End sees archaeologists unearth six bodies buried at the foot of a cliff on the north Norfolk coast and The Chalk Pit is set in Norwich's old underground chalk mines.
It must be time, I suggest for Norfolk's infamous devil dog Black Shuck to have a starring role.
"Well," she laughs, "I do like a challenge..."
* Elly will be at The Assembly House in Norwich on February 6, publication day for The Lantern Men. The sold-out Jarrold-hosted event will see Elly in conversation with crime writer Elizabeth Haynes. The following day, she will be at Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Cley and Salthouse Marshes at 1.30pm and at 7pm, visit www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or call 01263 740008 for more details.
* For more about Elly Griffiths' books visit www.ellygriffiths.co.uk.