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SKELETON DANCE

By: Aaron Elkins
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York
2000 (hc); 2001 (pb)

There are quite a number of good series books that use archaeology and/or anthropology as the background for the mysteries or adventures into which they delve.  Malcolm Shuman’s Alan Graham mysteries come to mind, as well as Lynn Hamilton’s Lara McClintoch, Beverly Connor’s Lindsey Chamberlain, and of course, Elizabeth Peters’ wonderful Amelia Peabody series.  But my personal favorite has always been Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver mysteries.

In this, the tenth entry in the series, Gideon Oliver, physical anthropologist and world famous “skeleton detective,” and his wife Julie find mystery and mayhem in the Dordogne of France, an area rich in early European man sites—specifically Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon.   Gideon is working on a book for a popular audience, entitled Bones to Pick:  Wrong Turns, Dead Ends, and Popular Misconceptions in the Study of Humankind, and one of his case studies involves a hoax perpetrated by a member or members of the world renowned but more than slightly stuffy Institute of Prehistory located in the quaint village of Les Eyzies.  Before Gideon and Julie can even unpack, an old friend (Inspector Joly from the wonderful Old Bones mystery) has the world famous “skeleton detective” investigating the skeletal remains recently dug up by Toutou, a village mutt.  But these remain are neither Neanderthal nor Cro-Magnon—they are, in fact, much more recent as the bullet hole in the chest would indicate!  Gideon takes on the case in his usual stumbling, bumbling way and finally, with the help of Julie, solves the mystery, which, much to his surprise, ties in with his research on the hoax played out among the dry-as-dust academicians of the Institute.

Along the way, the reader is treated to some solid scientific information regarding early man in Europe, some first-rate physical anthropology and more than a few good belly laughs, particularly when Gideon is told the story of the “Lost Hippopotamus of Lake Mendota”—yes, the Lake Mendota!  And therein lies, I think, one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed the Gideon Oliver series so much over the years—Aaron Elkins simply has a great sense of humor, and the Gideon Oliver series allows him to display that sense of humor.  And I must admit to a bit of provincialism when it comes to my beating the drum for Gideon Oliver mysteries—Aaron Elkins received a degree in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his fictional hero, Gideon Oliver, “earned” his Ph.D. in physical anthropology from that same institution.  So Gideon is one of ours! 

Skeleton Dance is an entertaining read and I highly recommend all of the others in the series, especially Murder in the Queen’s Armes, Curses!, The Dark Place, and Old Bones.

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.