Review Catch Up: Uneasy Relations; Skull Duggery; Dying on the Vine by Aaron Elkins

So, in the last couple of months, I’ve read Gideon Oliver 15-17 and haven’t had a chance to write them up. Might as well tackle them in one post, right?

Some general thoughts that apply to them all, before moving into specifics.

As always with this series, these books are fun, clever, and not terribly violent. All of which are a nice balance to some of the darker things I read — and I know I could find darker yet in this genre. Say what you will about cozies (and I don’t know if these are technically cozies, but they’re at least cozie-adjacent), they’re a darn sight more entertaining than the noirest of noirs.

Not just by the sly and witty narrative, Gideon Oliver books remind me of the Nero Wolfe mysteries — he never ages, he can always find a away around the stickiest of situations and outsmart law enforcement without getting into trouble (Gideon’s better at this than Wolfe, and much prefers working with than in competition with them), and while Elkins will surprise you frequently by the solutions to the mysteries, he never cheats. Can’t take this list too far, because at the end of the day Gideon isn’t Wolfe and neither would find the comparison all that flattering.

Judging by his anthropological research, I’m guessing Elkins has done similar research into the way various law enforcement agencies work around the world. Particularly with the latter two of these, I really enjoyed getting glimpses into the police methods and structures of these countries — ditto for Unnatural Selection, but I don’t think I mentioned that when I reviewed it (and am too lazy to go look).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, reading these books are a like visiting with old friends, and I can’t wait to do it again.

Uneasy RelationsUneasy Relations

by Aaron J. Elkins

Hardcover, 288 pg.
Berkley Hardcover, 2008
Read: December 10, 2014

I’m glad he doesn’t return to this well too often, but when Elkins decides he’s going to invent a fictional (no doubt inspired by a real) major archaeological find, he does it right. Serving as the backdrop for this puzzle, this find sounds like the kind of thing I read about in various and sundry Anthropology textbooks in college. Throw in some satirical takes on publishing, literary agents, and academics and this becomes a really fun read. Oh yeah, and the murder — there’s that. That was a good puzzle, too.

I can’t get into it, but the site of the major find is really the star of this one, and it’s pretty cool. The solution to the murder was a nice twist, and the Skeleton Detective was as clever as ever.
3 Stars

Skull DuggerySkull Duggery

by Aaron J. Elkins
Hardcover, 281 pg.
Berkley Hardcover, 2009
Read: February 21, 2015

This one gets a bonus 1/2 star for the mentions by both Gideon and Julie that if he’s around, a skeleton (at least a skull) will appear to keep him busy (and would probably deserve the bonus without those mentions). I also appreciated the “just another day in the office” aspect of the attempt on Gideon’s life. At this point, he should really take out a bigger life insurance policy any time he leaves the country.

A week’s vacation in a little, out of the way, Mexican village turns deadly for Gideon and Julie. I really enjoyed the setting and the backstory on this one, even more than the forensics.

This one was almost painfully easy to figure out the killer — although the actual motive was trickier than I thought, but after The Reveal, it totally made sense. Despite that, I thought this was one of the better ones in this series that almost never has a lesser entry.
3.5 Stars

Dying on the VineDying on the Vine

by Aaron J. Elkins

Hardcover, 294 pg.
Berkley Hardcover, 2012
Read: February 28 – March 3, 2015

The whole band’s back together for this one — John & Marti, Julie & Gideon in old-school Italian wine country. The intrigue and informatin about the wine production (rephrase) reminded me of the behind the scenes look at coffee production from Twenty Blue Devils (although that subject is nearer and dearer to my heart). While I’m not a big wine person, I know I’d rather drink a bottle (one glass at a time, I’m not a Philistine) from the hands and craft of the traditional elements of the Cubbiddu, not the mechanical/mass produced stuff they started putting out — which I’m guessing Elkins agrees. Although, I can probably only afford the latter.

John navigating the local cuisine was a highlight for me, and probably speaks to my juvenile humor.

The mystery itself? Typical Elkins, smart enough to keep you guessing, compelling enough to keep you turning the pages, and not as important as the characters — new and old — and their interactions.

Heckuva lotta fun.
3 Stars

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Little Tiny Teeth by Aaron Elkins

Little Tiny Teeth (Gideon Oliver, #14)Little Tiny Teeth

by Aaron Elkins

Hardcover, 304 pg.
Berkley Hardcover, 2007
Read: June 25 – 26, 2014

Any further thoughts were interrupted by an excited clamor from the crew members on their break down below at the riverfront. They were jabbering in pidgin Spanish, pointing down into the water, and calling, apparently to Gideon. He was able to understand a few words: “Oiga, esqueletero! Aqui le tengo unos huesos!” Hey, skeleton man, I have some bones for you!
He jumped up. “They’ve found some bones.”
More bones?” John said, getting up too. “What is it about you, Doc? Do you bring this on yourself?”

It’s a question that all of us who’ve read a few of these books have asked from time to time. Not that we really care — the important thing is that the bones are found, that Gideon Oliver gets to do his thing, and we get to watch him in wonder with John Lau (or whoever is handy).

Which makes Little Tiny Teeth a little strange.

I try to stay away from spoilers here, but I have to get a touch spoiler-y here, but it’s nothing major, nothing that should impact someone’s appreciation of the book.

I’ve been reading these books for a long time — can’t tell you for sure how long, but the year started with the numbers one, eight and nine — and I’m reasonably certain that it’s never taken this long for a body to show up. It was just shy of page 190 when we had our first homicide. Another thirty pages until we got our first bone for the Skeleton Detective to do anything with. I’m not complaining, it’s good to see someone like Elkins experiment with his formula. But man, it was strange reading — I kept wondering, where’s the body? Where are all the bones? But, as always — they came.

But before that, we meet a handful of very interesting characters, all of whom have a good start on a motive for killing someone. We’ve got the frustrated doctoral candidate who can’t get the last signature on his dissertation; the professor who’s watching her career disappear; the father of the girl who had to fend off advances from her professor; the ghost writer who was denied credit; the man pressured into smuggling drugs; and — well, there are others.

Take these people, put them on a boat down the Amazon River with Gideon Oliver and John Lau? You know you’re going to get at least one body. Elkins didn’t disappoint — a nice puzzle, some interesting characters, a lot of interesting facts about a part of the world that’s teeming with them. Which makes for a pleasant, if not outstanding read.

It would’ve been nice if we’d had a sentence or two tying up the storylines of the four supporting characters that were pretty much abandoned. Nothing much, just something like “It looks like things will end up working out for ____” or “____’s immediate future looks a little brighter without . . . ” Things felt a little rushed at the end, I guess is what I’m trying to say.

Still, a nice, relaxing time with Gideon and John (even if they weren’t that relaxed). Which is all I ask Elkins to provide. Good enough.

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3 Stars

Unnatural Selection by Aaron J. Elkins

Unnatural Selection (Gideon Oliver Mystery, #13)Unnatural Selection

by Aaron Elkins
Hardcover, 288 pg.
Berkley Hardcover, 2006
Read: Dec. 26-27, 2014

So Gideon and Julie are off to the Scilly Isles in the UK for Julie to attend an ecology conference. While she’s busy talking about ways to save the world, Gideon plans on some sightseeing, hanging out in a museum doing some volunteer work, enjoying life.

But, no surprise here, Gideon stumbles onto a bone that doesn’t belong there. And we’re off to the races with the Skeleton Detective.

Elkins doesn’t come up with an excuse for Mr. and Mrs. Lau to come along to Julie’s conference, but thankfully, there are a couple of British policemen to fill his skeptical-then-fawning shoes. Which is not a knock on everyone’s favorite FBI Agent, it’s his role in the books, I get that. I enjoy him, even when the role gets tired. Anyway, the local constabulary are a fun pair.

Elkins clearly did some research on cadaver (et cetera) dogs, and he was eager to share it. Yeah, it was info-dumpy, which generally turns me off. But, Elkins made his dog expert pretty entertaining — and hey, it was about dogs. Ended up enjoying those bits.

Amusing characters, interesting puzzle, a new location, and Elkins’ writing is always enjoyable — put that all together for a thoroughly entertaining book. This wasn’t the greatest mystery I’ve read, or even the best of this series, but it was fun. That’s good enough.

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3 Stars

Where There’s a Will by Aaron Elkins

Where There's a Will
Where There’s a Will

by Aaron Elkins
Hardcover, 288 pg.
Berkley Hardcover, 2005

Spending time with an Aaron Elkins book is like spending time with old friends. Without meaning to I’d taken a few years off from reading the Oliver books, and then picked one up a couple of years ago and it was just like picking up a friend from high school like no time had passed. I had the same experience with this one it was a pleasant reunion with my old buddies Gideon, Julie and John.

A minor quibble to get out of the way before I get into this: I’m sorry, you really can’t be naming a main character Hedwig in 2005. What I see when I read that name isn’t the oddly large vegetarian, spiritual therapist (or whatever she calls herself); I see a white owl, delivering mail for a bespectacled wizard with a distinctive scar.

As usual, Gideon Oliver, the forensic anthropologist, is on a vacation with his old friend John Lau, the FBI agent and runs into a set of bones that needs to be examined. John and Julie, Gideon’s wife, are quick to joke about this tendency. This time, they’re on a ranch that John worked at in college and the plane that one of the ranch’s owners had disappeared in ten years previously is discovered. Gideon’s volunteered to help identify the remains in the plane — and things go sideways from there.

Gideon only has a foot and a mandible to work with this time (and later, some photographs of another body), so he doesn’t get to strut his stuff as much as he frequently does. Still, the amount of information he’s able to pull from this sample is astounding. Even if these books were dull, I’d pick them up frequently just to read these parts. But Elkins is fun to read — he has a breezy, comfortable style — which his main characters share. They have fun doing what they do, and it’s infectious, before long you can’t help having fun with them.

As enjoying as Elkins is to read, its easy to forget how dark he can go when it’s called for — usually when Gideon (and sometimes John) have been poking around in an old, old case and someone gets nervous about it and starts picking off incriminating people. I’m not saying he reaches a James Patterson-esque level of the description of a murder, it’s definitely briefer than him, but compared to the rest of the book, it’s dark.

I’d guessed at part of the big reveal at the end of the novel early on, but Gideon talked me out of it — quite convincingly (and honestly — Elkins doesn’t cheat like a lot of mystery writers do). I get frustrated at myself when that happens, but I’m consistently entertained by it, too. So that’s a plus in my book.

A good read, it’s a series you can really jump into at any point, with very clever mysteries — give it a shot. Hopefully I keep my resolution this time and get back together with my brainy pal Gideon real soon.

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3.5 Stars