The marshy ground by the bay at Mont St. Michel swallows up an old man as he finishes his hunt for seashells. Nearby, in the basement of a 16th-century Breton manoir, workers dig up the remains of another man. That pile of bones had lain underground for several decades—probably since the time of the Second World War, when Nazi Occupation troops and French Resistance fighters left a lot of bodies lying about. In the vicinity, attending an international conference of crime investigators, is forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver. He’s a more ordinary and agreeable fellow than his unofficial title, “the Skeleton Detective of America,” would suggest, and here he agrees to assist Inspector Joly in reconstituting the flesh of truth that clings figuratively to those old bones. Then another death occurs at the manor house, and attention turns to members of the du Rocher clan, the ancient grande famille that owns the place. The du Rochers, harboring the usual complement of intra-family secrets and resentments, present Oliver and Joly with a full slate of suspects.
In 1988, judges for the Mystery Writers of America organization gave this solid country-house whodunit an Edgar award for best novel of the previous year. Certainly, it has a plot of high caliber: Beneath the interconnected trio of mysterious deaths lurk mysteries of human identity; in the case of at least one character, identity appears to shift like the watery sands near Mont St. Michel. Elkins, moreover, writes polished and even masterful prose. Only his blithe and overly “cozy” tone calls into question, ever so slightly, the judgment of those judges. Old bones and fresh killings are serious business, after all.