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3 trowels


By: Aaron Elkins
New York, Berkley Publishing Group
July 2008 (hc)

I inevitably wait with great anticipation the publication of a new Gideon Oliver mystery, and Uneasy Relations, the 15th in the series, fulfilled all my expectations.  Once again Aaron Elkins has conceived a satisfying puzzler of a plot, has introduced an array of interesting—and sometimes slightly—bizarre possible suspects, and has provided a suitably exotic locale—this time the island of Gibraltar—for Gideon to ply his talents as the intrepid “skeleton detective.”  For while plots change, and exotic locations vary with each new novel, it is the delightful character that is Gideon Oliver that provides the cement for this great series.  Gideon is simultaneously brilliant and scatterbrained; he can be incredibly pedantic and still self-effacing; he can be a daring action hero one moment and a klutz the next.  Aaron Elkins has simply created a wonderful protagonist. 

On numerous occasions Aaron Elkins has used the world of academia as a backdrop for his Gideon Oliver mysteries, often with tongue firmly in cheek.  In this latest entry Gideon is preparing to present a paper at the meeting of the International Paleoanthropological Society.  To his chagrin he finds a report in the popular press that he will present evidence of a scientific hoax that will eclipse the infamous Piltdown controversy.  His comment was meant to be a quip that the dullard journalist who quoted him took quite literally.  Gideon realizes he will face the good-natured ribbing of his peers for a long time to come—academics can be unforgiving when a colleague commits a professional faux pas

Before the actual conference, a small group of paleoanthropologists, including Gideon, gather to pay homage to a living legend in their midst—Ivan Gunderson, the grand old man of early man archaeology.  His greatest contribution to the field had taken place a few years earlier on Gibraltar with the discovery of the “First Family”—the burial of an early homo sapien woman  embracing a young boy—“Gibraltar Boy”-- presumably her son, who showed distinctive Neanderthal traits.  This earthshaking discovery seemed to tip the scales in the long-running debate among paleoanthropologists whether Homo sapiens and Neanderthals could and did interbreed (the “admixture” theory) or remained completely separate until the Neanderthals simply died out.  With Gunderson’s discovery, the admixture theory was now ascendant.  Ivan Gunderson’s celebrants were those anthropologists who had actually excavated the “First Family” under his guidance, or, as in Gideon’s case, had conducted the post-excavation analysis of the skeletal remains. 

Amidst all this bon homie, darker forces seem to be at work as Gideon almost plunges to his death from the famed Rock of Gibraltar—he’s convinced he was nudged from the precipice but has no proof—and later is almost electrocuted in a suspicious “accident.”  Then there are murmurings among the band of colleagues that one of their group—a young graduate student at the time of the First Family excavation—had died under mysterious circumstances in the collapse of Europa Point Cave, the First Family burial site two years after the excavation was completed.  No one seemed to know what she was doing there or even why she was there.  Then another tragic “accident” occurs as Ivan Gunderson dies shortly after the testimonial in a fire started apparently from the embers of his ever-present pipe.  Gideon, ever mindful of his old mentor—Abe Goldstein—and his Law of Interconnected Monkey Business, begins to suspect that someone is trying to kill off all those involved in the First Family excavation. 

How Gideon literally puts together the pieces of this anthropological puzzle to solve the mystery of not only who is trying to kill a group of otherwise harmless anthropologists, but more importantly why makes for a fascinating read.  Along with a wonderfully convoluted plot, Aaron Elkins, through his clever Skeleton Detective, also exposes the reader to the very latest in forensic anthropology theory and practice.  But now, unfortunately, we must wait at least a year for the next Gideon Oliver mystery! An enthusiastic three trowels for Uneasy Relations.   

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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.