Book Reviews

Review Rating

With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

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Skeleton Dance by Aaron Elkins

Reviewed on: December 1, 2001

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.

Twenty Years in the Trenches: Archaeology in Fiction

William Gresens, longtime MVAC supporter and volunteer, has been writing reviews of archaeological fiction as MVAC’s book reviewer for twenty years.  In this interview Bill shares how he got started writing reviews for MVAC, how the genre has changed, highlights, and his thoughts looking forward. 

Bill Gresen’s Book Review 20th Anniversary

While Bill's reviews go back 20 years now, his relationship with MVAC goes back more than twice that long! The reviews capture some of the things we enjoy most about Bill-- he's perceptive, methodical, a clear thinker, and a whole lot of fun! We look forward to this relationship--and Bill's reviews!--continuing for many years to come.

The March 2021 review marks the 20th anniversary of reviews of archaeological fiction.  It has been my pleasure and great fun to while away the hours reading these books—for the most part, at least—and writing the reviews!  My thanks to MVAC allowing me to prattle on and I look forward to the years ahead.

Bill Gresens