Phil recommends his friend Oliver to the local police official, Colonnello Tullio Caravale, but the policeman isn't too eager for outside help. At least not until the skeletal remains show up on a building site owned by de Grazia's company--then Gideon's expertise is welcomed. Welcomed by almost everyone. When the bones are identified as Dominico de Grazia, Vincenzo's father who was believed drowned in a boating accident, someone doesn't want Oliver to spend much time looking over the remains. An attempt is made to steal the bones and when that goes awry, Oliver himself is attacked. But when Oliver finally gets a chance to examine the bones closely he can't understand what all the fuss was about--there's nothing out of the ordinary beyond the evidence of damage to Dominico's femur (but everyone knew he limped and used a cane--so what good is that?) and that the family's patriarch was murdered by a kitchen knife. These facts doesn't seem to point towards anyone in particular. Oliver feels sure that he's missed something--but what? In the meantime, a ransom is paid, the kidnapped boy is returned, and there are clues that seem to lead to someone close to the de Grazia family. There are also pointers to a deep secret in the family's past--Caravale's detective work and Oliver's bone study come together for a surprise ending to this tale of murder and deception among Italy's upper-class.
Aaron Elkins is an author that I discovered back in the 80s when he debuted his "Skeleton Detective" series. I enjoyed the first several, but, as is the way of things, I soon got distracted by other books and other authors. Gideon Oliver is a very interesting detective--and the first forensic anthropologist that I met in fiction. Elkins is very adept at bringing in the technical terminology without overwhelming the reader and I come away feeling like I know a little bit more than I did when I started. I was also quite pleased that (due to a very personal experience *see below for explanation--but be warned, there may be a spoiler) I was able to identify the key bit of skeletal evidence before Oliver was allowed to recognize its significance. Go me!
The setting is ideal and Elkins describes it perfectly. He also provides a cast of interesting characters--though I must say that I agree with Phil that his relatives would probably get on my nerves if I had to visit them for any length of time. Lots of tensions and reasons for murder. My only complaint lies in the fair play aspect--while the clue in the skeleton is clear for anyone with a bit of previous knowledge, there really aren't sufficient clues to determine the culprit definitely. One might have suspicions, but (unless I missed them) there aren't enough definite clues to back it up. Overall, a very enjoyable read--with interesting characters and plot and a good setting. This one earns a bit extra in the star department for that personal link I mentioned above. ★★★★
~~~~This counts for the "Forensic Specialist" category in the Mystery Reporter Challenge.
*As mentioned above, this story took on a personal note when Oliver describes the damage to Dominico de Grazia's femur. He indicates that he believes it to be damage from a break or injury early in the patriarch's life--but as soon as I read the specifics, I thought to myself, That sounds like Perthe's Disease. Perthe's is a condition that cuts off blood flow to the hip joint--and it occurs most often in boys from the ages of 5-10 or 11. I got well-acquainted with that nasty disease when my son was diagnosed with it at the age of 10 1/2 (on the cusp of the upper-age limit). And he has that tell-tale limp described by those who knew Dominico. I can't tell you how pleased I was to have identified the proper cause of that damage before Oliver did. When I told my son (who's now 23) about it, he said, with his usual dry humor, "Well at least having the disease was good for something."