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End of a mysterious era
by MATTHEW NASH
With a quiet sendoff, Sequim author Aaron Elkins is ending his run with Gideon Oliver, the Skeleton Detective.
Berkley Prime Crime, a division of Penguin, recently released his 17th book in the series on the forensic detective, “Dying on the Vine.”
by Aaron Elkins
• The final official Gideon Oliver, “The Skeleton Detective”
• Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime
• 294 pages
• Available at local bookstores and online in hardback and e-book editions.
Since first creating the character in 1982’s “Fellowship of Fear,” Elkins feels Oliver remains the same person 30 years later.
“I never wanted to age him,” Elkins said. “He was 37 in 1982 when the first book released and he’s 41 in 2012. I’m not going to throw a 67-year-old man down the stairs.”
Besides time, Elkins said he devoted nearly 2 million words to Oliver’s investigations.
“Writing a series, you’re going to have a lot of fans with you all the way. But you don’t want to turn off new readers. In each book I have to reintroduce the characters,” he said. “You don’t want to educate readers again and again.”
Elkins reintroduces Oliver, a forensic scientist and professor, in “Dying on the Vine” during a lecture on survival of the fittest. He sets the mystery in the Tuscany region of Italy where Oliver attempts to solve the perceived murder-suicide of wine pioneers Pietro and Nola, whose bodies are discovered some time after their disappearance.
Oliver, along with recurring cast members Julie, his wife, and long-time friend and FBI special agent John Blau, seeks the truth of how the couple died.
More Italian family blood is spilled through the book, leading to an unlikely killer being revealed.
As is customary for his work, Elkins explored Tuscany for a few weeks with his wife, Charlotte, to do research.
He said the settings in his books must fit the story and he doesn’t simply go someplace for the fun of it.
Originally, “Dying” was placed in the Yakima Valley, but he felt the setting wasn’t quite right. Elkins even spent some time there researching but after some hesitation and discussion, Charlotte suggested a more romantic place and he went with Italy.
Even though Elkins doesn’t revisit the same place twice in his novels for a crime, he said his classic murder mysteries create a predictable atmosphere and characterization that readers enjoy.
“People who read this know there’s not going to be a torture scene or animal mutilation or something of that nature,” Elkins said.
In “Dying,” readers shouldn’t expect a big finale or a somber note for Oliver.
Elkins said he’s happy with his output writing Oliver and has no regrets.
“I like him and I might insert him another series,” he said.
The release of “Dying” comes more than a year after Elkins completed it. He and Charlotte just finished another book: “Cruise to Die for,” due out September 2013, follows art consultant Alix London. It’s their second book in the series, which this time is set in the Greek Islands.
Between the couple, they’ve written 28 books, and Elkins’ plan is to focus on writing with Charlotte.
Elkins said their first Alix London book, “A Dangerous Talent,” has done well and he’s considering revisiting his Chris Norgren series, also about an art expert, last released in “Old Scores” (1993).
As for newcomers to his Gideon Oliver series, Elkins recommends his second book “The Dark Place.” But for him personally, he starts with other series midway.
“When I read a series, I start in the middle. Then I enjoy going back to the first book and reading forward,” he said.
Looking back on his first book, Elkins said he felt he didn’t quite hit his stride until later.
“With the first book you have it’s from inspiration and maybe the second,” he said.
But Elkins finds his writing career a job rather than a hobby.
“I complete one job a year,” he said. “It’s always frustrating. It’s never as good as I thought it would be.”
Coming up with the mystery’s hook usually comes to Elkins at the end of writing his previous book.
“For Gideon, I think of what can surprise you,” he said.
His Skeleton Detective stories are straight-up mysteries, he says, and must be written differently from his stand-alone thrillers like “The Worst Thing” from 2011.
“With thrillers it’s about what happens next, but in a mystery it has to add up logically and be plotted out more carefully,” Elkins said. “The outline can change 30 times.”
For his mysteries, Elkins purposefully writes episodically, similar to creating television scenes.
Gideon Oliver had his own TV show briefly in 1989 and Elkins has been approached several times about adaptations of his other works, but there currently are no options taken on his series.
Elkins said current forensic mysteries, such as “Bones,” don’t take anything from his writing.
“I just got there first,” he said of his style.
Although some call him the father of modern forensic mystery, Elkins said classic mystery is on its way out of favor.
“Traditionally, mystery and sci-fi, too, appeals less to emotions and appeals more to intellect,” he said.
“Attention spans are going down.”
Elkins finds himself changing with the times not in method but by becoming more technologically savvy. Years ago he remembers saying on a panel that if his writing goes to only being on e-books he would want out.
“I changed. That’s the future,” he said.
All of his books are published in digital and book formats, and “Cruise to Die for” is being released through an imprint of Amazon. He said that “A Dangerous Talent” sold more e-books than physical copies so far.
More on Elkins
Elkins first moved to Sequim in 1983 and moved away four years later. He returned in 2002.
“Everybody was too old. There wasn’t any stimulation for me. But 20 years later, I think, ‘Why did we think they were old?’” he said.
Sequim is the first place Elkins returned to and he plans to stay.
“I like the fog and mist here,” he said. “It feels healthy.”
At the time of the interview, Elkins said he was reading “The Lords of Discipline” by Pat Conroy and “The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks.
Learn more about Elkins at www.aaronelkins.com and look for his books at local bookstores, online or through the Sequim Library.