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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Switcheroo by Aaron Elkins

November 1, 2016

Thomas & Mercer Publishers:  Seattle, WA
2016 (PB)

In 1982 author Aaron Elkins, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin anthropology program, introduced his creation Gideon Oliver, the “Skeleton Detective,” to lovers of mystery fiction in his Fellowship of Fear.  Sixteen more delightful adventures followed, until Elkins closed out the series with 2012’s Dying on the Vine.  It seemed then almost too good to be true when in mid-2015, Amazon.com listed a new Gideon Oliver title to be published in early 2016.

It was almost as if an old long-lost friend turned up at the door when Switcheroo arrived in the mail.  If I had any fears that Gideon Oliver might have lost his mojo in the intervening four years, those fears were quickly put to rest as I plunged back into the world of the dauntless Skeleton Detective.  Gideon was still the somewhat absent-minded expert on Early Humankind, who split his time between teaching at the University of Washington Port Angeles campus and helping various law enforcement authorities around the world solve cold case murders, utilizing his knowledge and skills as a physical anthropologist—or in this case, participating, along with his old friend, FBI Special Agent John Lau, in the International Conference on Science and Detection at the University of Malaga in Spain.

As the conference winds down, John Lau introduces Gideon and his wife Julie to a fellow conferee, Rafe Carlisle, who is a major donor to and a board member of a renowned British DNA laboratory.  Rafe is well aware of Gideon Oliver’s reputation and asks that the famed anthropologist, as well as Julie and John Lau, accompany him to his home on Jersey, in the Channel Isles between England and France.  He seeks Gideon’s expertise in possibly shedding some light on a fifty-year-old mystery that has haunted him since his boyhood.

In 1964, his father, Roderick Carlisle, owner of Carlisle Dairies and Carlisle Paving and Construction on the Isle of Jersey, and his partner and long-time friend, George Skinner, were caught up in a charge of suspected embezzlement.  Events quickly turn tragic when George Skinner is found shot to death on company property.  Roderick Carlisle and company bookkeeper Bertrand Peltier disappear the same day as the murder, thus becoming the prime suspects in the murder.  But five years later, twelve skeletal fragments and Roderick’s ring are found in the Carlisle Tar Pits, and the forensic examiner determined that the bones, greatly degraded by the tars, are the commingled remains of Roderick and Peltier.  The murder of George Skinner is therefore “solved” to the satisfaction of the Jersey police—that Roderick killed George and then Peltier and Roderick somehow killed each other and ended up in the tar pits.  Rafe Carlisle has always questioned the finding and now hopes that perhaps Gideon can ferret out some new information by analyzing the precious few skeletal remains of his father and Bertrand Peltier.  Forensic science was, after all, in its infancy in 1969, and the investigators might have missed some important clues.

Gideon dives into the project with great relish, but he finds that the answers to the mysteries go back much farther back in time than 1969—back, in fact, to 1940 when the Channel Islands were, in effect, surrendered to Nazi occupiers and the social fabric of the Islands was torn asunder.  The search for these answers also brings out of the shadows a very contemporary killer who would like to keep these old secrets safely in the past,

This is a delightfully complex and convoluted mystery, with great dollops of humor and “inside anthropology.”  Readers will learn of the effects of blunt trauma to sutures of the skull, determining age at time of death by examining the epiphyses of bones, syndactyly (?), and even the natural history of tar pits!

Four trowels for the return of the intrepid Gideon Oliver!