Dying on the Vine
Aaron Elkins

ISBN-13: 978-0425247884
Publisher: Penguin Group
Line: Berkley
Release Date: Dec 4, 2012
Retail Price: 25.95


Edgar® Award–winning author Aaron Elkins’s creation—forensics professor Gideon Oliver—has been hailed by the Chicago Tribune as “a likable, down-to-earth, cerebral sleuth.” Now, the celebrated Skeleton Detective is visiting friends at a vineyard in Tuscany when murder leaves a bitter aftertaste…

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…



For fans of: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Every September, winemaker Pietro Cubbiddu leaves his Tuscan vineyard and heads off to a remote mountain cabin for a month of rest and reflection. Pietro never learned to drive, so his wife Nola is tasked with the chore of ferrying him back and forth. This year’s sabbatical starts out just like every other – Nola drops off Pietro and heads north to visit her sister.  A month later, she leaves her sister’s house and goes to retrieve her husband.  Neither of them is seen alive ever again.

The following August, a hiker stumbles across two sets of human remains just half a kilometer from Pietro’s getaway.  The skeletons are identified as those of Pietro and Nola, and after a brief investigation, the police rule their deaths a murder-suicide. But that theory doesn’t sit quite right with those who knew the couple.  Enter Gideon Oliver, an anthropologist known the world over as the Skeleton Detective.  Oliver just so happens to be in Tuscany lecturing and visiting friends, and after just one look at Nola’s bones, he can tell that the police have it all wrong.  Pietro’s remains have been entombed, Nola’s scheduled for cremation, and the crime scene is already over a year old.  Can Oliver determine what fate actually befell the Cubbiddus, or is that a secret the pair is destined to take with them to the grave?

Dying on the Vine is Aaron Elkins’ seventeenth Gideon Oliver Novel, and it has single-handedly restored my faith in the forensic thriller.  I actually used to love this type of book – I cut my thriller-reading teeth on the likes of Patricia Cornwell and Robin Cook.  Somewhere along the way, though, I just sort of lost my taste for them.  The sub-genre was growing increasingly more violent and gruesome, it seemed like every book had a serial killer for a villain, and the puzzles were being replaced with psychologists and profilers.  And so one day, I just stopped reading them.  After having plowed through Elkins’ riveting Dying on the Vine, though, I fear I might have given up too soon, because it’s exactly the kind of book that made me fall in love with forensic thrillers in the first place.

Dying on the Vine is an elegantly, cleverly, seamlessly constructed puzzle-style mystery – like a Sherlock Holmes tale set in modern times.  The setup is neatly and efficiently accomplished. The suspects are established right at the very start, and each is given a distinct personality and a unique motive. The story unfolds at exactly the right pace, creating a tempo that’s breathless, but not too. It has an incredibly strong sense of culture and place, and at times reads as much like a travelogue and a love letter to Italy as it does a thriller. And Elkins writes about the science of the case in a very approachable manner, neither talking down to, nor talking over the head of, the reader.

Elkins populates his world with exactly the number of characters he needs to tell his tale – no more, no less – and to a one, they’re wonderfully well drawn. The brilliant but irreverent half-Italian, half-American lead investigator, Lieutenant Rocco Gardello, is especially entertaining, and could easily carry a series all on his own.  FBI special agent John Lau simultaneously provides great comic relief and is the perfect Watson to Oliver’s Holmes.  And Gideon Oliver himself is about as perfect a protagonist as one can hope for.  He’s Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Aloysius Pendergast all rolled into one, but he’s also incredibly charismatic and has an endearingly wry sense of humor.  Yes, he’s a genius and he loves his work, but his work is not his life; he’s got a wife he adores and friends whose company he genuinely enjoys, and that makes all the difference.

I sat down with this book on a Saturday morning, intending to read a few chapters and then go about the rest of my day.  Needless to say, that didn’t happen; I consumed the entirety of Dying on the Vine in one greedy sitting, and then spent the remainder of the afternoon ignoring my to-do list, perusing Elkins’ back catalog, and dreaming of Italy.

Reviewed by Kat