Thursday, June 11

Old Bones - Aaron Elkins

Forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver is mostly enjoying his conference in France, which is more than can be said for his friend FBI agent John Lau. He was hoping while in the country to catch up with Guillame du Rocher, whom he'd met previously and whose company he'd enjoyed. When Oliver is asked to assist with identifying some bones found in an old cellar he's initially delighted to learn that it's du Rocher's home, then saddened to learn that the old man had died only days earlier, caught in quick sand and drowning in the lightening fast tide off the coast.
The age of the bones indicates they belonged to a man who died during the Second World War, information that causes many of the involved French locals to try to shut down the investigation. As Oliver continues to pursue the partial skeleton's identity secrets from the past come to life, their effects rippling through du Rocher's tragic death and endangering Oliver's life.
This is the second Oliver novel I've read, though not the second in the series. Unlike my first encounter with the "famous American Bone Detective" I was not really aware of the time lag between publication (1987) and my reading, except in regards to the WW2 timing. Oliver is engaging and interesting, the Normandy setting was a refreshing change from the more usual locales, and I caught shades of Christie's style in both the country house/family setting and the time table detailing (which will make sense if you read the book).
There are notes of humour (I particularly liked Oliver's statement that the bones could be human or perhaps those of a polydactylous pig), and an interesting albeit brief discussion about the erosion of grammar and spelling ("Wither Man" - hilarious) was particularly illuminating given the age of the population he's discussing - the university students of the mid-eighties are not only my peers but also the people criticising this in today's students.
I love learning new things in unexpected places. One here was the existence of the apparently spectacular Mont St Michel, which I now have to add to places I want to see (and which reminds me of the Rock of Gibraltar), and a long-held question I had was answered - while bones retain information about musculature (because of the depth and strength of insertion points), they don't give any information about non-muscle weight. The subsidiary question, why reconstructions on TV shows therefore always create 'normal weight' people, was sadly unanswered but this is a start.
None of this detracted from the overall involving mystery. The characterisation was a little thin, with some reliance on stereotype - I particularly noted the gluttonous son whose furious devouring of sweet treats, pushed into his pink mouth with a finger tip, is mirrored by his avarice. The lead character, however, is well drawn, and the pace of the novel prevented the drawbacks from overshadowing the book as a whole. Though I won't be rushing out to read the next one, when another Elkins novel crosses my path I will read it. - Alex

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