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Skull Duggery

Book by Aaron Elkins

As a forensic anthropologist, Gideon Oliver knows his skeletons.  “He felt himself a little at loose ends if he wasn’t involved in some forensic case or another…it was never very long before one came and found him.”

Where forensic science is mainly about identifying the cause of death, forensic anthropology is about identity of the remains.  In this 16th installment in the Gideon Oliver series, identity is centrally important to the crime.

Gideon Oliver, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington-Port Angeles, is talked into spending his winter break at The Hacienda Encantada in Teotitlán del Valle in Oaxaca, Mexico.  So what will the renowned Skeleton Detective do while on vacation?

“Some old skeleton will turn up for you; it always does.”  His wife tells him, and indead it does.

Skull Duggery begins, however, with Flaviano Sandoval interrogating a suspicious drifter, Manuel Garcia, who claims to be passing through town.  Sandoval wasn’t cut out for being a police chief—by his own admission—but the position is a stepping stone to his dream of being the town mayor.  The last thing he wants is a stranger causing trouble in his district, and so in the morning, he takes Garcia to where the drifter can take a bus out of town.

Skip ahead six months, and a mummified corpse is discovered in the Mexican desert.  The médico legista informs Sandoval that the body has been dead for eight to ten months and died from a gunshot to the chest.  Sandoval is conflicted.  Recognizing a tattoo on the corpse, he knows this man—in fact, the drifter Manuel Garcia—has only been dead lesss than six months.  Further, a search for the supposed bullet is fruitless.  Fortunately, Sandoval happens to discuss the case with Annie Tendler at the Hacienda, and she tells him he should have Gideon take a look at the corpse.

Turns out the man wasn’t shot.  But then how did he die?  The answer Gideon finds may surprise you.  He accompanies Sandoval to report his findings to the Policía Ministerial in Oaxaca City.  There, Gideon encounters an old friend, Javier Marmolejo.  The two previously met in the Yucatán during a prior case.  Marmolejo, now a colonel, asks Gideon to take a look at the skeleton of a girl, who was clearly murdered, but never identified.  Coincidentally, her skeleton was discovered not more than 100 meters from where the mummifed corpse was found.

Isn’t Teotitlán supposed to be a sleepy town?  And could the skeletons have anything to do with the Gallagher family who own and operate the Hacienda where Gideon and his wife are staying?  Let’s just say the second metatarsal bone of one victim’s foot is a key clue to the puzzle.

This book particularly shines when describing Gideon’s examinations (a strangely fascinating process) of the two skeletons; the first occurs in chapter six, the second in chapter eleven.  Fans of Kathy Reichs or CSI type shows would enjoy this one.

For more about Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver series, check out his site here.  There’s also a page with interesting Forensic Tidbits, a couple of which come into play in Skull Duggery, but none are spoilers.

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