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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Dead Men’s Hearts by Aaron Elkins

April 1, 2005

Mysterious Press, New York
1994 (hc)

Aaron Elkins’ eighth Gideon Oliver mystery finds the intrepid “Skeleton Detective” and his wife Julie on their way to Egypt at the behest of the University of Washington’s vice-president for development. It seems that Bea and Bruno Gustafson of Walla Walla, significant donors to the University, are also major contributors to the Horizon Foundation, an archaeological research institute located in Luxor, Egypt. The Gustafson’s wish to sponsor a promotional video that highlights the Foundation’s history and contributions to Egyptology-and they want the famous Gideon Oliver to be one of the film’s narrators.

It is always a pleasure to read – and re-read-a Gideon Oliver novel, and it was doubly so in this case as I read Dead Men’s Hearts almost literally following in Gideon’s footsteps. Although Gideon and Julie traveled to Luxor by boat up the Nile, I was fortunate enough to be accompanying two Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center archaeologists by train as we traveled from Cairo to Luxor by train, which is almost never out of sight of the Nile. While our trip was exciting and adventuresome, we fortunately did not face the dangers that befell the entourage filming the video in the novel.

Almost as soon as Gideon and Julie join the film crew and research staff of Horizon House in Luxor-loosely based on Chicago House of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute-things begin to go badly. A skeleton in modern Arab garb is found in a tool shed on the Horizon House grounds. Using his almost legendary forensic skills, Gideon dates the Skelton to about 2,000 BC and most likely a scribe of a royal house. This uncanny bit of detective work turns out to be a bit off as the Egyptian police identify the body being of very recent vintage and quite possibly the victim of foul play! However, a second Skelton is soon discovered and this one, without doubt, is some 4,000 years old, and Gideon is convinced there is some body-switching chicanery going on. Clifford Haddon, the irascible director of Horizon House is also certain that he saw a statuary head from the Amarna period tucked away with the first skeleton, but no one else seems to have seen it and it was not present when the police were on the scene.

The plot thickens when Haddon is killed falling overboard on a Nile cruise and Gideon, whose expertise has been put in question by the skeleton in the tool shed fiasco, must convince the Egyptian police that Haddon was the victim of foul play. His dogged pursuit of the puzzling occurrences at Horizon House leads to a deadly confrontation with a killer on the edge of the Western Desert just outside Luxor and also unravels a plot involving the trafficking of Egyptian antiquities.

Reading any Gideon Oliver is a cause for rejoicing and Dead Men’s Hearts is no exception. A reader can always anticipate a good solid mystery, some wonderful humor, and a worthwhile lesson in forensic anthropology from the world-famous Skelton Detective, Gideon Oliver.