Twenty Blue Devils

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The dead man is the manager of Tahiti’s Paradise Coffee Plantation, producer of the most expensive coffee bean in the world, the winey, luscious Blue Devil. Nothing tangible points to foul play behind his fall from a cliff, but FBI agent John Lau, a relative of the coffee-growing family, has his suspicions. What he needs is evidence, and who better to provide it than his friend, anthropologist Gideon Oliver, the Skeleton Detective? Gideon is willing to help, but surprisingly—and suspiciously—both the police and ...

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Twenty Blue Devils

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The dead man is the manager of Tahiti’s Paradise Coffee Plantation, producer of the most expensive coffee bean in the world, the winey, luscious Blue Devil. Nothing tangible points to foul play behind his fall from a cliff, but FBI agent John Lau, a relative of the coffee-growing family, has his suspicions. What he needs is evidence, and who better to provide it than his friend, anthropologist Gideon Oliver, the Skeleton Detective? Gideon is willing to help, but surprisingly—and suspiciously—both the police and the other family members refuse to okay an exhumation order. As a result, Gideon, to his surprise and against his better judgment, finds himself sneaking into a graveyard under cover of night with John, a flashlight, and a shovel—not exactly up to the professional standards of the world’s most famous forensic anthropologist, but necessary under the circumstances.

Gideon prefers his bones ancient, dry, and dusty, but the body he must examine had lain in the tropical sun for a week before it was found and then buried native-style—shallow, with no casket—so it is not exactly his . . . well, cup of tea. But it is not the state of the remains that bothers him the most, it is the deeper human ugliness that his examination uncovers: subtle clues that do indeed point to foul play, to mistaken identity, and to a murderous conspiracy that may have percolated through the family for decades—and brewed a taste for murder.

The ninth entry in Elkins' Edgar Award-winning series digs up murder and treachery in Tahiti. Anthropologist/sleuth Gideon Oliver travels to Tahiti with FBI agent John Lau to exhume a body buried on a coffee plantation--only to be told when they arrive that there services are no longer needed. Sensing a secret too tantalizing to ignore, Gideon and John dig up the bones anyway. 304 pp. Print ads. Author publicity. 25,000 print.

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Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
Whimsical, intricately plotted...terribly clever.
NY Times Book Review
Gideon knows his bones -- and, in this case, his beans.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gideon Oliver, the shrewd, witty and self-deprecating forensic anthropologist, is at the top of his form in his ninth appearance (after Dead Men's Hearts, 1994). This tale, populated with a memorable and well-defined cast, finds Gideon traveling to Tahiti with friend and FBI agent John Lau to investigate what might have been the murder of Brian Scott, manager of the thriving, family-owned Paradise Coffee Plantation and common-law husband of the owner's daughter Thrse. Amid rumors of Mafia retaliation for earlier, unfriendly testimony by plantation owner Nick Druett, Gideon runs into unexpected obstacles. Neither Nick nor Thrse wants Brian's body exhumed; Nick's good friend, the pompous head of the local gendarmerie, agrees. Gideon, perceptive as always, notices something extraordinary in the official photographs of Brian and, as the ensuing investigation progresses, the seemingly close-knit family begins to unravel. Thrse, who is docile and uncommunicative, her politically correct sister and other, more devious family members are all at odds over a lucrative offer to buy the plantation, a move Brian had opposed. Zipping along at a smooth and rapid clip, the story combines masterfully etched characters and suggestions of lingering aromas of frangipani and coconut palms with the consummate panache of its hero. Elkins rewards his readers with a riveting mystery even while altering forever the way they will view their trendy, upscale coffee. Mystery Guild featured alternate; author tour. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
There must be trouble brewing at Nick Druett's Paradise Coffee Plantation. Nick's daughter Thérèse has sent back the lava samples she swiped from Hawaii, returning them in hopes of propitiating the volcano goddess Pele, who she can only hope has been responsible for the wave of infernal accidents (a worker maimed by new equipment, tons of coffee beans ruined by improper storage, two near-fatalities for Thérèse's unofficial husband Brian Scott) in her parents' Tahitian paradise. But Pele, or whoever, is undeterred. When a third accident leaves Brian dead, Thérèse's cousin, FBI agent John Lau, brings in forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver to examine Brian's corpse and see if he wasn't dispatched by a less divine agency. Nick, who'd originally requested an exhumation order, begins to waffle, and the police commandant won't let Oliver dig up the corpse. He must have read the Skeleton Detective's eight previous adventures (Dead Men's Hearts, 1994, etc.) and remembered what wizardry he can work on the most reluctant bones. But even he can't predict the spectacular deductions Oliver will base on an old head injury of Brian's and on his monster fibulas—or the hilarious home truths about the coffee business that'll follow.

Elkins has never gotten his due as a comic Patricia Cornwell. Maybe this tale, which beautifully balances tangy Tahitian backgrounds with a deft and brainy whodunit, will be the wake-up call.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781497643307
  • Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
  • Publication date: 7/8/2014
  • Series: Gideon Oliver Mysteries Series, #9
  • Pages: 230
  • Sales rank: 901,141
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Aaron Elkins

Aaron Elkins is a former anthropologist and professor who has been writing mysteries and thrillers since 1982. His major continuing series features forensic anthropologist-detective Gideon Oliver, “the Skeleton Detective.” There are fifteen published titles to date in the series. The Gideon Oliver books have been (roughly) translated into a major ABC-TV series and have been selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the Literary Guild, and the Readers Digest Condensed Mystery Series. His work has been published in a dozen languages.

 Mr. Elkins won the 1988 Edgar Award for best mystery of the year for Old Bones, the fourth book in the Gideon Oliver Series. He and his cowriter and wife, Charlotte, also won an Agatha Award, and he has also won a Nero Wolfe Award. Mr. Elkins lives on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula with Charlotte.

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Read an Excerpt

Twenty Blue Devils

The Gideon Oliver Series: Book 9

By Aaron Elkins


Copyright © 1997 Aaron Elkins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-1015-6


Dear Madame Pele,

Last year me and my husband visited Hawaii for our 20th anniversary and stayed overnight at Volcanoe House. Well, the next morning, we took one of the bus rides around the park and when we had a stop we picked up these pieces of lavarock even though the driver told us we better not because of the Curse. But we couldn't imagine that a little rock could bring us so much BAD LUCK!

BOY, WERE WE WRONG!!!!! The curse started coming true before we even got home! Our luggage got sent to Hong Kong (instead of Chicago) and it took a month to get our things back. Since then, things have went from bad to worst. We have had illness, death, and financial destruction one right after the other. Nobody can believe so many terrible things could happen to one family. Just in the last few months our cat got run over, our porch developed dry rot which cost $2,500 to repair, and my husbands 88 year old father fell off a roof which he should never have been standing on in the first place and died of a rupture.

Then the other day I was going through some things and ran across this lavarock from our trip and I suddenly realized that the legend must be true!

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE make sure it gets back to the volcanoe!!! We're sorry and we apologize for not believing. We hope now that Madame Pele and us and our family can find the peace we all so desperately need! I beg you to grant this request and send me a note in the enclosed envelope that it has been done.

Sincerely yours,
(Mrs.) Doris Root
408 Howard Avenue
Winnetka, Il 60093

With a shake of her head and a long-suffering expression on her broad, amiable face, park ranger Brenda Ho put the flowered note card down. Honestly, she thought, you didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. Every day the mailroom table was piled with these pathetic bundles of misery; sometimes only five or six, often as many as twenty. Patiently wrapped with yards of tape, or trussed up with knotted string, or bound with metal straps, all of them bulging with chunks, lumps, strands, and crumbs of lava.

And every one of them making amends to Pele, Goddess of Fire, daughter of Haumea the Earth Mother and Wakea the Sky Father, who lived deep beneath the uneasy floor of Halemaumau Crater in what was now Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Pele, so the legend said, was a selfish and vindictive goddess who inflicted Job-like calamity on anyone who took even a handful of lava from her domain. The only way to lift the curse was to return to its source that which had been stolen and hope for mercy. And so they came pouring back into park headquarters, these humble objects of atonement, as if what this ceaselessly erupting wasteland needed was more lava.

And what the park rangers needed was more work.

Brenda rooted briefly through Mrs. Root's box. There were some irregular stones about the size of tennis balls, a mass of windblown lava strands that had cooled into the curious formations called Pele's hair, a few cupfuls of black sand, and a shell lei apparently offered as further propitiation. Everything had been sealed in a heavy plastic sack, then embedded in a sea of foam peanuts and finally packaged in a sturdy carton that was wrapped in enough layers of duct tape to survive the next world war. It had taken Brenda several minutes' work with a utility knife to get it all open. And it had cost Mrs. Root $23.20 in postage.

"Pathetic," Brenda murmured.

Across the table, Ruby Laney, the park's part-time administrative assistant, looked up over her half-spectacles.

"Another tearjerker?" With Brenda, she was going through the accumulation of packages, something they saved for four o'clock in the afternoon on Wednesdays and Fridays.

"Aren't they all?" Brenda said. She handed across the letter and the stamped, neatly addressed envelope. "She wants an answer."

Mrs. Laney nodded and added them to the stack on a corner of the table. The responses would go out the next day. They would all say the same thing:

Dear Mr./Ms. ________:

Thank you for your letter and the enclosed materials. As you requested, the materials have been deposited within the park.

Brenda Ho
Supervisory Park Ranger and Interpretive Specialist

"Deposited within the park" was, to put it mildly, a euphemism. As always, all the detritus on the table would be carted less than a hundred feet, out to the "rock graveyard" in back of the administrative carport, and left there. Brenda wondered sometimes what the scientists were going to make of that ample mound of globe-trotting volcanic junk a hundred years from now.

Dumping behind the carport wasn't what Mrs. Root had in mind, but what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her, and neither Brenda nor anyone else had the inclination to lug the stuff out to the rim of the crater and solemnly drop it over the edge. In the first place, that was the kind of thing the rangers were there to prevent, not to perpetrate. You didn't take anything from a national park, and you didn't leave anything either. In the second place, and this was what made all the extra work so aggravating, the curse wasn't even genuine; there was no basis for it in Hawaiian mythology. No, Pele wasn't the kind of deity you'd want to go out of your way to irritate, but she didn't spend her time wreaking catastrophe on souvenir hunters either.

All the same, about fifteen years earlier the packaged lava had started to trickle back, infrequently at first, and now a steady, ever-growing flood. No one knew what had started it. The most likely theory was that the tour bus drivers, tired of cleaning up the volcanic debris left behind in their buses, had invented the story and energetically spread it. Or maybe the rangers themselves had, hoping to keep the tourists from walking off with the park.

However it had begun, it was now a sizable pain in the neck, time-consuming and depressing to boot. And as always, the incredible way people were able to delude themselves got Brenda down. Anything, it seemed, was better than accepting responsibility for a string of misfortunes, or even chalking them up to a simple run of bad luck. No, there had to be some grand celestial plan behind it. But who was it who had let the cat out on the road in the first place? Who had failed to check the porch for dry rot all these years? What was Grandpa Root doing out on the damn roof anyway?

Well, the faster she worked, the sooner she'd be done. She reached for another packet, one of the slimmer ones this time, and opened it. Two gleaming pellets, black and tapering, fell onto the table; "Pele's tears," droplets of lava that had solidified while still airborne. The letter with it was on textured, cream-colored stationery, thick and expensive, and written with a fountain pen, not a ballpoint. The handwriting was feminine, as regular and unaffected as a child's penmanship exercise.

Dear Mother Pele,

I am writing this letter to ask your forgiveness. Recently my father's farm has suffered many disasters. Now I wonder if I am to blame. My husband and 1 went to your beautiful island on our honeymoon several years ago. While we were there we took the enclosed small stones. Please believe me, we didn't mean to offend you. We just didn't know any better. Now I understand that it was the cause of all the awful things that have happened.

There it was, that pitiful longing to find a reason for their troubles. They happen to glance into a drawer one day and see a few shining black pebbles. "Alia," they say, "so that explains it," and somehow it relieves them. There's a meaning to it all: Pele is angry, Pele is wrathful.

Last year we had the wettest March and April ever, everyone said so, more than 20 inches. And of course it was at the worst possible time, just when the buds were setting, so the crop was a terrible loss.

Oh, sure, that made a lot of sense. Pele's miffed because this sweet young thing made off with an ounce and a half of lava, so she dumps two feet of rain on her father's cabbages and rutabagas, and on everybody else's rutabagas too.

We didn't realize it then, but that was only the start of our troubles. At harvest time, the pulper brake down and one of the workers got his hand caught in the gears while he was trying to fix it, and he had to be rushed to the hospital in Papeete but he ...

Brenda frowned. Pulper? Papeete? She turned abruptly to the last page of the letter, to the signature.

"I don't believe it," she said aloud. "Thérèse."

Mrs. Laney glanced up from the triple-taped container she had been trying unsuccessfully to breach.

Brenda raised the letter. "Unbelievable. This is from my cousin."

Mrs. Laney's plucked eyebrows rose. Her half-moon glasses slid farther down her nose. "Really? Your own personal cousin?"

Yes her own personal cousin. Thérèse, whose mother was Aunt Céline, Brenda's mother's older sister. Thérèse, whose father, the bigger-than-life, transplanted American Nick Druett, owned not a cabbage farm but a thriving Tahitian coffee plantation, two thousand prosperous acres carved out of the jungly flanks of Mt. Iviroa, twenty-five miles south of Papeete and three thousand miles southeast of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Brenda bent to the letter again.

... but he lost two fingers anyway and had to be made a supervisor. Next, the new drying furnace started a fire and ruined 75 bags of beans that we were processing for the other farmers, and we had to pay them thousands of dollars as a result. Then the brand-new sorting machine broke down three times this year alone, and even though there was a warranty it took at least two weeks to get it fixed every time, which meant we had to hire a whole lot of extra people to do the work. And I can't tell you how many times the computers have acted funny. My husband says it's like there's a ghost in the system.

Most scary of all, my husband (his name is Brian Scott) has almost been killed two times. Once, the wall of the new drying shed blew down in a windstorm and the roof fell in right where he had just been standing, but luckily it missed him. Another time, the jeep he was riding in went off a steep road and my husband broke his arm in two places and the man who was riding with him lost two teeth, but they could just as easily have been killed because the jeep turned over when it went down the mountainside.

Please, mother Pele, we meant no harm. Please forgive our ignorance. I am returning these stones so that they can be placed in the volcano where they belong, and our lives can return to normal.

Thérèse Druett Scott

Cripes. Brenda sat back with pursed lips and let out a thoughtful breath. Thérèse, whose gifts lay more in the direction of a sweet-tempered disposition than an abundance of brains, might have things a little scrambled, but she was apparently right about one thing: something was amiss at the Paradise Coffee plantation.

She rose thoughtfully and headed for the door.

Mrs. Laney, who had been eagerly awaiting more information, was indignant. "And that's all you're going to tell me? That it's from your cousin?"

"What?" Brenda was already in the hallway, re-reading the letter as she walked. "Oh ... I need to make a phone call, Ruby ..."

* * *

"I don't understand," Thérèse said in that soft, appealingly hesitant voice of hers. "How do you know about my letter?"

"It came right to me," Brenda said. "I'm the one who opens them."

"But—aren't you in California, at Kings Canyon?"

"Not anymore. Thérèse, I'm here at Hawaii Volcanoes. I've been trying to get back here for years. I've been here since March."

"Oh," Thérèse said. "Nobody told me."

There was nothing surprising about that. The two branches of the family were not in frequent contact. Brenda was a Lau by birth, her father a native Hawaiian, her mother a Tahitian-born Chinese who had moved to Hilo in 1950 to marry Brenda's father. Thérèse was a Druett, half-Chinese, half-American. Her mother—Brenda's aunt Céline—had been a famous beauty who had been swept off her feet by Nick Druett, the swashbuckling young American newly come to the South Seas to make his fortune, which he very soon did. They had had a daughter, Maggie, not long after they married (well, before they married, but nobody talked about that); then, ten years later, as something of a surprise, along had come the beautiful Thérèse, now twenty-eight.

Living as they did in two different hemispheres, the Laus and the Druetts didn't see each other often, but there was affection between them, and Brenda was particularly fond of Thérèse, eight years her junior. Thérèse had never quite taken up life in the real world, but she was warmhearted and without guile. What you saw on the surface was all there was underneath.

"Thérèse, I had no idea these things were going on at the plantation."

"No, well, you know my father. He doesn't like to advertise things. Brenda—will those stones really go back into the volcano? I mean, I know you think it's silly but ..."

Brenda opened her hand to look at the two glassy pebbles, black and shining on her palm. "Yes, honey, I'll see to it personally." She would too. On tomorrow morning's routine drive around the caldera she'd stop at the rim of Halemaumau Crater, Pele's private volcano, and drop them over the edge. And hope her boss wasn't anywhere around to see.

"It's not that I really believe in the curse," Thérèse said unconvincingly, "but I just didn't know what else to do. I mean, I know that it's just a myth, but I didn't think it could hurt."

"Of course not," Brenda said gently. "Thérèse, what does Brian think about all this?" Brian, Thérèse's husband, was the plantation's operations manager.

"He just shrugs it off. You know how he is. He says these things just happen on their own sometimes."

"Well, they do," Brenda said. They did too, but this time she thought there might be more to it. "Um, is Brian around? It'd be nice to say hello."

"No, he's off communing with nature on Raiatea," Thérèse said with no sign of irony, then added a small tinkling laugh: "I would have gone too, but of course I had to stay home with Claudine and Claudette."

Every year Brian spent a week or ten days roughing it at a favorite camping spot on the mountainous, barely populated island of Raiatea, a hundred miles from Tahiti, possibly the only man in history who considered Tahiti a place to get away from. He'd convinced Thérèse to come with him once—her first camping experience—and the much-pampered young woman had been appalled at the lack of comfort, hygiene, and amenities that went along with it She'd also been bored stiff, not that she'd admit any of it to her adored Brian. So when the twins came along later she'd used them as a heaven-sent excuse to stay at home while he continued to make his annual pilgrimage alone. She hated being apart from him, she'd told Brenda once, but anything was better than going ten days without a hot shower and doing your business in a hole in the ground.

"I almost forgot," Brenda said. "Congratulations. I didn't know that you and Brian had gotten married."

"Married?" Thérèse said vaguely. "No, we're not married, we're—well, the same as ever. You know."

"But your letter said he was your husband. You signed it Thérèse Scott."

"Oh." There was a moment's hesitation, and Brenda would have bet she was blushing. "I just thought Pele would think of me as a more sincere person if I was married."

* * *

"This is nothing to concern you, Brenda," Nelson Lau said. "We can take care of it here in Tahiti, thank you."

Brenda turned her head from the receiver and sighed. Her brother was not one of the world's great telephone personalities. The Stanford-educated Nelson was the only one of the Laus who had gone back to Tahiti from Hawaii, accepting Uncle Nick's job offer of the company's comptrollership fifteen years ago, almost the minute he'd gotten his MBA. And there he'd been ever since, very likely the most straitlaced man in French Polynesia and getting more so every year. Nelson actually wore a suit to work. In Tahiti.

"Nelson, how can I help being concerned? People have been hurt. Brian's almost been killed, and Thérèse—"

Muffled noises of exasperation came from the telephone. "Oh, for heaven's sake, you're making a mountain out of a molehill. Thérèse has always had a way of blowing things up out of proportion. You know what an extraordinarily suggestible—"

"Nelson, I want to know: Do all these accidents have anything to do with that awful gangland business?"

"Does what have anything to do with that awful gangland business? You mean all that rain last April?"

"Don't be funny, it doesn't suit you. Tell me honestly: Is this some kind of sabotage? Revenge? Are they getting back at Nick?"

"Now, really, how would I possibly know that?"


Excerpted from Twenty Blue Devils by Aaron Elkins. Copyright © 1997 Aaron Elkins. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2012


    The book was entertaining and I did learn something from reading it. I think I may be tiring of Gideon's character, though. He and Julie need to have a medium or minor falling out. They're relationship is a little saccharin. I do enjoy the author's descriptions of the settings.

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