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'Skeleton Dance' by Aaron Elkins

Archeologist solves a modern-day mystery

Sunday, May 21, 2000

By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior Editor


Skeleton Dance

By Aaron Elkins



Gideon Oliver is an archaeologist whose highly praised accomplishments in his field have earned him the name “Skeleton Detective” -- a dubious honor that he despises.

He is about to embark on a sabbatical from his faculty position at a Seattle university when he receives a phone call from his old friend, Lucien Joly, chief inspector of the Judicial Police in Dordogne, France.

Joly, an unusual, elegant policeman, asks Oliver for assistance with a new and baffling case involving bones found among the prehistoric fossils close to the Institut de Prehistorie in the small Dordogne village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac.

The bones in question are not prehistoric. In fact, they are from the present decade, and there are indications that the victim may have been murdered.

Les Eyzies-de-Tayac was to have been a stop on Oliver’s European itinerary, since he has worked at the Institut in the past. It takes only small changes in his travel plans for Oliver and his wife, Julie, to be detoured there.

Oliver soon confirms that the bones belonged to a 20th-century white male, and that the victim does not seem to have died of natural causes.

The story then emerges that there has been a long-standing dispute among the Institut academics as to whether Neanderthals were mere extensions of the great apes or distant relations of modern man.

Whether or not they produced primitive works of art is a key factor in the dispute, and it is so contentious that a previously respected academic, an American named Carpenter, is said to have committed suicide after having been accused of fraud involving bones from this very area.

And the faculty is divided on this and other points of scholarship.

What follows is, for the reader, an enjoyable and educational romp through elementary archaeology. Not only is the mystery absorbing and fun, but the facts that come through about prehistory and the ways of scholars in this science are enough to encourage the reader to take an elementary archaeology course.

That’s not necessary, of course, to follow the intricacies of Elkins’ plot or the varied and various quirks of his characters.Or, of course, the affable cleverness of this unusual archaeologist-turned-sleuth.

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