The Edgar Awards Revisited: Old Bones by Aaron Elkins (Best Novel; 1988)
By Gabino IglesiasAugust 30, 2019
Learn about 1988's Edgar Award winner Old Bones by Aaron Elkins—one of the first modern novels to delve deep into forensics as a means to solve a crime.
Aaron Elkins’ Old Bones, the fourth novel in the Gideon Oliver Mysteries series, won the Edgar Award in 1988 and has been continuously in print since then. With its elegant prose and dialogue-heavy writing, the book is a master class in classic whodunits and one of the first modern novels to delve deep into forensic science as a means to solve a crime with no witnesses and another one whose actors are now history. However, some of its overwritten passages and its vocabulary are a testament to how much crime fiction has changed in the last three decades.
Guillaume du Rocher, the patriarch of the du Rocher family, is out in the tidal plains of Mont. St. Michel when the tide comes in fast and he is caught in some of the area’s quicksand. His death, while understandable for an old man, is only the beginning of a very deep mystery with historical roots, a lot of deception, and even a stolen identity. Du Rocher, a man who enjoyed solitude, had asked family members to join him because he had something to tell them, but he died before being able to do so. In the wake of his death, restorations to the du Rocher home’s basement yield a surprise: an incomplete human skeleton. The bones are found neatly wrapped in butcher paper beneath the old stone flooring and appear to be old. Local authorities call on professor Gideon Oliver for help to solve the mystery. Oliver, known as the Skeleton Detective, is giving a lecture on forensic anthropology at a nearby town and quickly shows up to investigate the find. Despite his vast expertise in forensics and some initial revelations, what Oliver finds is not enough to close the case. What they end up with is a what appears to be pieces of the skeleton of a Nazi officer who was murdered in the area by locals during the Occupation. However, Oliver isn’t completely sure and he doesn’t have enough bones to know more. When a second pile of bones is discovered, everything Oliver and the authorities thought they knew about the previous bones and the accidental death of Guillaume du Rocher crumbles as the plot thickens. With two bodies buried in the same house and a recent murder via cyanide poisoning among the visiting relatives, Oliver turns his full attention to solving the crimes. Unfortunately, someone doesn’t want him to and they mail him a bomb, which only manages to strengthen his resolve. What follows is an intriguing story that brings together the past and the present and ends in a truly memorable way.
Elkins does two things very well in this novel. The first is dialogue. Dialogue carries the majority of the narrative. By having characters talk their way through their questions and theories, Elkins evades information dumps and always keeps the story moving forward. The fact that he populated the novel with quirky and even some outright unlikeable characters helps him accomplish that even better because everyone has, if not a unique voice, at least a distinctive tone. Furthermore, using dialogue continuously allows him to inject humor into what could have otherwise been a very dry narrative. Gideon and the law enforcement officers he is helping take jabs at each other and keep things light from time to time even when discussing murder, Nazis, and poisoning.
The second thing the author excels at here is writing about bones, which is one of the elements that made the Gideon Oliver series so popular. Elkins did his research in terms of forensic science and he brings that knowledge to the page without interrupting the larger narrative at hand. Elkins, a physical anthropologist, makes bones tells interesting stories and the way he writes about pieces of bones doing so is unique and probably one of the reasons this novel was awarded and Edgar:
Gideon pulled a portable heater a little closer and studied the earth-stained bones without touching them. A ribcage, including the vertebral column and both scapulas, on its back, with the ribs now collapsed one upon the other like parallel rows of dominoes and shreds of dried brown cartilage holding some of the joints together; most of a right hand underneath it, also still tenuously articulated by withered cartilage; a scattering of additional hand and foot bones. They had been there a while, all right; there was no trace left of the distinctive candle-wax odor—the smell of the fat in the marrow—that exuded from bones for many years after the soft tissue had rotted away. And the bones had coarsened and begun to crack with the temperature changes of many summers and winters. So it had been there twenty years at least, and possibly more.
While the pacing in Old Bones is superb when Elkins is writing about forensic science and having his characters talk about the case, the novel slows down considerably in other parts. For example, there are unnecessarily long descriptions of food, a page and a half in which Oliver thinks about grading and the changing nature of grammar, and more than one instance in which descriptions of places interrupt the flow of the story. A perfect example comes during a talk between Oliver and the man he is trying to help:
They had been walking around the pond behind the manoir for almost an hour, along the gravel path cut into the terraced bank. The early March twilight had come while Gideon had filled John in on the day’s events, and above them, on a knoll, the great stone building loomed, silhouetted against what was eft of the light, its complex, steeply pitched roof angles and tall stone chimneys as featureless, black, and sharp as paper cutouts. In the rear courtyard, a few stunted, gnarled oak tress, still bare, were outlined against the empty, rose-gray sky.
Occasionally dipping into something akin to a Southern Gothic is fine, but when it happens too much and the writing adds nothing to the story, then it becomes a bit of a nuisance. Luckily the strength of the rest of the writing is enough to overpower those instances.
Besides being an entertaining read, Old Bones is important in a historical context. Elkins has been called the father of the modern forensic mystery, and the writing in this novel proves that he has earned that moniker. Despite its few shortcomings, Old Bones is a step between Sherlock Holmes and all modern investigators. It’s also an entertaining read that takes place in France and thus offers readers a chance to read about American people dealing with the cultural differences while trying to solve a few crimes.
Fun Facts from the 1988 Edgar Awards:
The other nominees for Best Novel included A Trouble of Fools by Linda Barnes, Nursery Crimes by B.M. Gill, Rough Cider by Peter Lovesey, and The Corpse in Oozak’s Pond by Charlotte MacLeod.
Best First Novel went to Death Among Strangers by Deidre S. Laiken. The other nominees were Parnell Hall (Detective), John Lantigua (Heat Lightning), Dallas Murphy (Lover Man), and Domenic Stansberry (The Spoiler).
Best Short Story went to “Soft Monkey” by Harlan Ellison. The other nominees were “Breakfast Television” by Robert Barnard, “Mr. Felix” by Paula Gosling, “Stroke of Genius” by George Baxt, and “The Au Pair Girl” by Joyce Harrington.
- There were two recipients of the Raven Award: Vincent Price and Angela Lansbury.
Phyllis A. Whitney served as the Grand Master.
- Esteemed editor Ruth Cavin was awarded the Ellery Queen Award.
Next week, tune in as Martin Quinn A Cold Red Sunrise by Stuart M. Kaminsky. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.