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Professor Gideon Oliver teaches paleoanthropology at the university of Seattle, USA. His specialty are bones, the older, the better. When you read old, think 30,000 years at least. He's at his happiest when he can fondle, sniff and scrutinise them under a magnifying glass. Ancient bones and tools, that is his world. "This was one of the deep, one of the near-mystical, pleasures of anthropology...He had in his hand a tool that had been made and used perhaps 100,000 years ago...a strange, primitive creature, not quite human...languageless, naked or perhaps clothed in animal skins, had once clutched it..." From examining bones and tools he learns about the living conditions of the individual to whom they once belonged.
When he doesn't teach, he visits digs, attends meetings, delivers lectures, writes articles for scientific journals or travels for pleasure. Big surprise, on all his outings he encounters a murder or two. Knowing that he can see things in skeletons other people can't, not even forensic scientists, the police ask him to assist. He can't stand fresh corpses, autopsies make him sick, but what can he do? On the one hand he's a modest man, on the other hand he knows that he's second best - after the professor he studied with. Besides, a scientist must always get to the bottom of a problem, even though curiosity doesn't only kill the cat but often endangers a nosy professor's life, too.
In Skeleton Dance Gideon has taken a sabbatical and is on a fact finding tour for a book on scientific hoaxes and blunders. We meet him in the south of France, in a picturesque village boasting the largest concentration of prehistoric fossils in Europe and also the seat of the prestigious Institut de Préhistoire. There are only a handful of members, Frenchmen and Americans, who've thrived on squabbling and vicious debates for decades. The topic in question is the existence of human qualities in the Neanderthalers. Did they have any and can be considered as ancestors of the homo sapiens as well or were they a dead-end-species that has to be thrown off our family tree for good?
One day a local dog brings human bones from one of the many prehistoric caves of the region to its owner. It soon becomes clear that they're not remains of any old Cro-magnon. Inspector Joly asks Gideon to assist him in solving the case. They've known each other for many years, they met when Gideon held a seminar for French police personnel on what bones can tell. A close inspection reveals that they're only three to five years old. As an employee of the Institut went missing at around that time, it doesn't seem fallacious to assume that there may be a connection with the Institut.
Wherever in the world Gideon is involved in a case, the group of suspects is limited. From the books I've read up to now (one half of the existing sixteen) I can say that they're always Americans or Europeans the exception being the Hawaiian family he encounters on Tahiti. This reminds the well-read reader of thrillers of Agatha Christie's novels for which a small circle of mainly English suspects is typical no matter where the story is set. The decisive difference, however, is that Elkins lets his characters interact with the surroundings they find themselves in. I remember reading Christie's Death on the Nile on a cruise on the Nile. All other passengers appreciated my appropriate choice of reading matter. Little did they know that I could have read the book also on a cruise on the Volga or the Amazon, Egypt plays no rôle whatsoever in it. The crimes Elkins thinks of can only take place where they do, they're based on local peculiarities. Gideon always gets into contact with the locals, if it's fitting, there's an elaborate description of a local dish, a mouth-watering one in the case of Skeleton Dance. After all he's in the south of France, how can an American not enjoy the food served there?!
His pleasure is heightened by the fact that his wife accompanies him. She often does this. When she has no time (she's a park ranger), we see a policeman-friend at Gideon's side. These characters have the same function, namely serving as Dr Watson-like sidekicks to the professor. They're not stupid, they're interested in the subject matter - just like the reader - but they're not specialists and can't follow anthropologist speak. When Gideon rattles off, "...Look, there's just the start of some osteophytosis, here on the synarthrodial aspect of the centrum-", he must be reined in. They need an explanation for laypeople just as we do. Such dialogues occur regularly but aren't overdone. In fact they can be quite funny, for example when Gideon tells his wife, "You have the world's most absolutely gorgeous submaxillary triangle, did I ever tell you that?" . . . "Yes, many times...It never fails to take my breath away."
Gideon is a goody; in a thriller such a protagonist has always more difficulty in keeping the reader's attention than a mean bastard, but Elkins pulls it off in my opinion. That is if you like the cosy variety of the genre. You should also have an interest in (paleo)anthropology, of course or , if you haven't heard of this science before, be open to read and learn about it. Elkins knows what he's talking about as he was an anthropologist before he started writing. This doesn't mean too much, however, I'm sure he could have researched the subject profoundly enough to base his thrillers on it. He also wrote a series featuring an art historian with so much knowledge that I could have sworn he has a PhD in art history. This may sound very high-brow and off-putting, but he never shows off with his knowledge. A negative example in this field is Ian McEwan for me. When I've finished a book of his, I feel I can pass an exam in the scientific subject in question.
I've chosen to review this book in the Gideon Oliver series because I find the discussions about the Neanderthalers' capability of producing art or not fascinating. Producing art is what discerns humans from animals. I've often looked at primitive pots in museums used to store something, tens of thousands of years old. Why are they decorated? The decoration may be a zigzag or a wavy line or a simple straight one, it doesn't matter. An animal doesn't decorate. So, besides following the unravelling of the murders I've also found something else of interest in this book.
If I could arouse your interest in Gideon Oliver's adventures, I recommend studying the list of the books of the series. You can then decide which setting appeals to you most, Alaska, Mexico, Dorset, Tahiti, the north of France, the south of France, Germany, to name but a few, and start there. It doesn't matter much in which order you read the books.