Aaron Elkins, SwitcherooThomas & Mercer publishers, 2016
© 2016 Aaron Elkins
© 2016 Aaron Elkins
Elkins has long been a major figure in American mystery fiction, having published 18 mysteries featuring Gideon Oliver (a forensic anthropologist), 3 Chris Norgern (museum curator; I like these books a lot) mysteries; 9 mysteries in 2 series (co-authored with his wife Charlotte), and some non-series works, beginning in 1982 with the first Gideon Oliver book (Fellowship of Fear). I have found his books generally to be well-conceived, well-set, and well written. Switcheroo follows that pattern fairly well, except for two things: While it’s well-conceived and well-set, (1) Gideon Oliver’s entire role in the book could have been just dropped with little or no loss to the story and (2) for my tastes, far too much of the book seems to be there simply to get the book closer to 300 pages.
The story is this: In 1940, as it becomes apparent that Germany will invade—and take control of—the Channel Islands, a large-scale evacuation of families takes place. There is not nearly enough time or enough transport to get everyone out who wants to go, and many people are left either by their choices or by circumstances. For two families on the Isle of Jersey—the Carlisles and the Skinners—things become complicated. Howard Carlisle had hoped to get his 2-year-old (and somewhat sickly) son Roddy out. His brother-in-law, Willie Skinner, his wife, and their robust 2-year-old son George, have places in the evacuation. Carlisle, essentially, pays Skinner a small fortune to swap George (who will stay, and be treated as if he were Roddy) for Roddy.
In 1945, as the war ends, the Skinners return and, according to plan, the masquerade is scheduled to be reversed.
Nearly 20 years later, both Roddy and George are apparently murdered.
And now, 50 years after that, Rafe Carlisle, son of Roddy, one of the richest men on the island, approaches Gideon about examining what remains of the bodies of Roddy and George. He agrees, and we spend most of the book on the Isle of Jersey.
Elkins does a fine job of creating the place and the people. But what he does not do, in my opinion, is create a story in which a forensic anthropologist has much of a role. And there’s no particular sense of urgency or suspense to propel the story. By far the most interesting characters are three members of the local police force—the Detective Superintendent Mike Clapper (who knows Gideon from a past encounter, before he was transferred to jersey) and two local detectives, Bayley and Buncombe (think Laurel and Hardy).
In fact, if you can get past the really minor part played by Gideon Oliver and the occasionally lethargic pace of the story (we spend a lot of time describing what everyone ate and drank), this is an OK tale (although the solution seemed to be a bit contrived). But the pace was a problem, and the presence of Gideon Oliver exacerbated the pacing problem.