Dying on the Vine, by Aaron Elkins (review)

February 11, 2013 Book Reviews 2 ★★★

Dying on the Vine, by Aaron Elkins (review)Dying on the Vine by Aaron Elkins
Series: Gideon Oliver #17
Published by Berkley Publishing Group on Dec. 4, 2012
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
Source: the library
Add to Goodreads

Also in this series: Switcheroo
Also by this author: A Dangerous Talent, Switcheroo

It was the unwavering custom of Pietro Cubbiddu, patriarch of Tuscany’s Villa Antica wine empire, to take a solitary month-long sabbatical at the end of the early grape harvest, leaving the winery in the trusted hands of his three sons. His wife, Nola, would drive him to an isolated mountain cabin in the Apennines and return for him a month later, bringing him back to his family and business.

So it went for almost a decade—until the year came when neither of them returned. Months later, a hiker in the Apennines stumbles on their skeletal remains. The carabinieri investigate and release their findings: they are dealing with a murder-suicide. The evidence makes it clear that Pietro Cubbiddu shot and killed his wife and then himself. The likely motive: his discovery that Nola had been having an affair.

Not long afterwards, Gideon Oliver and his wife, Julie, are in Tuscany visiting their friends, the Cubbiddu offspring. The renowned Skeleton Detective is asked to reexamine the bones. When he does, he reluctantly concludes that the carabinieri, competent though they may be, have gotten almost everything wrong. Whatever it was that happened in the mountains, a murder-suicide it was not.

Soon Gideon finds himself in a morass of family antipathies, conflicts, and mistrust, to say nothing of the local carabinieri’s resentment. And when yet another Cubbiddu relation meets an unlikely end, it becomes bone-chillingly clear that the killer is far from finished...


I’ve been reading the Gideon Oliver mystery series for about fifteen years now, and I generally enjoy them. Most of the books are a quick, fun read, and offer a reasonably challenging mystery in a distinctive setting. I like the character of Gideon Oliver despite — or perhaps because of — his tendency to lecture at the drop of a hat. (It’s a trait I’m quite familiar with; our family is full of teachers and former teachers, including me.) And I’m always fascinated by the forensic science on which each solution rests. Oliver is a forensic anthropologist, which means he’s an expert on bones and what they can tell us about the human being they once belonged to – including cause of death.

Dying on the Vine is the newest and somewhat uninspired entry in this usually satisfying series. The crime and the solution have some interesting twists, including one I really didn’t see coming (as well as one or two which I did). It held my attention while I was reading it, and it was, as I expected, a light and enjoyable read. My only real problem with Dying on the Vine is that the plot seems at times almost secondary to the setting. Several days after reading the book, what lingers in my mind is neither the crime nor the characters (though I rather liked the laid-back Italian carabiniere in charge of the investigation.) Elkins is always good at evoking the setting of his mysteries, usually without overdoing it, but here his descriptions of buildings and towns read almost like a travel guide, and he spends almost as much time detailing his characters’ frequent meals and coffee breaks as he does on the crime investigation. As a result, the book feels a bit out of balance.

Overall, I’d have to say that I liked Dying On the Vine, but not as much as some of the other books in the series. If you’ve never read the series, try starting with Old Bones or Icy Clutches, both of which are pretty good. The series doesn’t have to be read in order, though doing so can help you keep track of the recurring characters. (The first book is Fellowship of Fear, which is interesting but not, in my opinion, one of the best.)


About Aaron Elkins

Aaron J. Elkins (born Brooklyn July 24, 1935) is an American mystery writer. He is best known for his series of novels featuring forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver—the ‘skeleton detective’. The fourth Oliver book, Old Bones, received the 1988 Edgar Award for Best Novel. As Oliver is a world-renowned authority, he travels around the world and each book is set in a different and often exotic locale.

Elkins also penned the Chris Norgren series featuring a museum curator who is an expert in Northern Renaissance art. In addition, he has several stand-alone thrillers, including Loot deals with art stolen by the Nazis and introduces protagonist Dr. Benjamin Revere.

With his wife, Charlotte Elkins, he has also co-written two mystery series, the Lee Ofsted golf mysteries and the Alix London art mysteries. The Elkins shared an Agatha Award for their short story “Nice Gorilla”.

2 Responses to “Dying on the Vine, by Aaron Elkins (review)”

    • Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

      Hi, Kimba! Yes, even the best authors usually have one or two installments that aren’t bad, they just don’t quite measure up. That was my feeling here — not bad, but definitely not his best.