Elkins represents the first in my Monday sequence of favorite mystery writers (and yes, I know this isn't Monday. Consider it make-up for April 1st when I had other things on my agenda). I'm not covering all my favorites, by any means, but I did manage to find several who fit the letters for the days! (And boy, it's been a while since I reviewed a bit of adult fiction. . . feels strange. . . spending too much time among the kids?).
Without further ado, then, Dying on the Vine, a Gideon Oliver (a.k.a. "Skeleton Detective") mystery
As the 17th Gideon Oliver book, I hardly expected Dying on the Vine to have anything shockingly new. Or maybe I did. A lot of mystery series that I've liked immensely in the early years have changed over time into something (typically more violent) that I don't like as well. Elkins seems to have avoided that trap while still managing to come up with inventive new settings and scenes for his stories. In fact, Dying on the Vine may be one of the least violent murder mysteries I have read, in terms of what happens during the story and to the main characters. There is, of course, a murder, but it happens off stage and before the book begins, and as we only ever see the corpse as a skeleton, it's pretty sanitized. Well, okay, there is another murder, also off stage and not very violent.
True confession time: I like mysteries for the puzzle. I'm not big on blood and gore. Close shaves and narrow escapes are fun but not essential. More on that later. So nice clean skeletons are okay with me, as they are for Gideon himself.
Dying on the Vine takes place in Italy, where Gideon and his wife Julie (along with friend John Lau of the FBI and his wife Marti) have gone for a combination of business and pleasure. Gideon is leading a seminar on forensic skeletons (my paraphrase), John is attending, and they are all visiting friends who own a vineyard and winery. The mystery strikes when a local police officer offers the class a real skeleton to contemplate, and (of course) Gideon turns up some inconsistencies between the police findings and the skeletal evidence. The plot thickens when he realizes this is the skeleton on the step-mother of their hosts--whom the police concluded was killed by her husband in a murder/suicide. What with one thing and another, and a lot of study of the bones, plus a little intuition and luck, Gideon manages to unravel the truth from a pile of bones, though not before another person is dead (though not anyone we care about, of course).
Best part: Elkins FINALLY let Julie come up with the right answer. In most of the books, it seems like Julie offers a solution, and is then proven wrong by Gideon, though she is often given credit for giving him a key insight. This time: she nails it. Not who did it, the police actually figure that out (!), but how and why. I like that. She's gotten squashed too many times.
Now, back to that issue of close shaves etc. Frankly, though an engaging and pleasant read, the stakes in this book just didn't feel high enough. We don't develop enough of a feeling for the Cubbiddu family (the Italian hosts with the corpses) to be truly concerned for their futures, nor do they seem terribly under threat. And at no time does anyone make any effort to stop Gideon, steal and destroy his skeletal evidence, etc. The story is just too tranquil. And I do sometimes get the feeling Elkins is a little too into the exotic settings just for the fun of writing about them and especially about the food. These people spend a LOT of time eating!
Now, Elkins being a really good writer, it's still an enjoyable read. It's just lacking a certain je ne sais quoi that would change it from "enjoyable read" to "I couldn't put it down." I don't need to be dodging bullets the whole time (which would be totally inappropriate for Gideon), but a little higher personal stake would be nice.
Bonus E word: Elk. As in what we saw last weekend in Redwood National Park (northern California coast).