Aaron Elkins began with Gideon Oliver and keeps returning to this highly appealing figure. Gideon’s wit, composure, and basic values make him someone the reader is glad to meet again.
Place is a major component of Elkins’s novels, revealing the author’s eye for details of culture as well as of place, developed in his travels around the world. In his novels, unlike many series novels, no sense of sameness develops—the locations are so different and the plots involve such a variety of issues and populations that each adventure seems fresh and new. Most series mysteries have a repeated location—a city, perhaps, or a small town—and this may contribute to the sense of familiarity that is a characteristic of the cozy mystery. Although Elkins’s novels have a number of continuing characters, the action is spread over the world.
Although Elkins wrote three series, his novels are all different. Although characters develop within a series, his writing does not exhibit a definite evolution over time. In each novel, Elkins divides the emphasis among plot, character, and setting. The plots are often tours de force; the conclusion is so logical when it is revealed, and yet it cannot be discerned earlier. His mysteries are not the classic type that drops clues to the point where the clever reader arrives at the conclusion almost simultaneously with the detective. The plots communicate a sense of the expansiveness and unpredictability of the world—and yet the concluding events fit and satisfy. If there is a difference between the earliest and the latest Elkins books, it might be that the humor is more prevalent and more pronounced in the later works. Also, the setting is more fully developed in the later novels, which sometimes have more exotic backgrounds.
Elkins’s frequent theme is the complex interaction between good and evil and the impossibility of separating them completely. Characters are often as morally ambiguous as people tend to be in real life. Heinous acts are committed out of misplaced idealism; good may be done by accident. Another theme is that actions always have consequences and that it is possible to trace the chain of cause and effect back to its root cause, which may be something larger than an individual’s desire for revenge or profit. One of the draws of the books is that the story often fits into some larger context.
The romance element tends to be quietly satisfying in Elkins’s novels; in the Gideon Oliver books, his falling in love with Julie and marrying her, and her consequent participation in his adventures are part of the background and do not distract from the main action. Elkins’s novels often demonstrate the maxim that “old sins have long shadows,” but without the total bleakness and sense of fatality that looms over the hard-boiled detective novel.
The Dark Place
The Dark Place (1983) is one of the earlier adventures of Gideon Oliver. Gideon is not yet married to Julie Tendler, who is chief park ranger. The story is set in Washington’s Olympic National Park, where hikers have been disappearing. When bones are found,...
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