By Gene Lyons
January 17, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

Twenty Blue Devils

TWENTY BLUE DEVILS Aaron Elkins (Mysterious Press, $22) As fictive sleuths go, few seem more unlikely at first glance than Gideon Oliver. An evolutionary theorist and forensic anthropologist by trade, Oliver is cheerful, scholarly, uxorious, even something of a bon vivant. Hardly the sort, one would think, to go traipsing about the mountains of Tahiti exhuming fresh graves in search of buried clues to a homicide. Yet dig he does. Oliver’s offbeat intellectualism is one of the charms of Elkins’ whimsical, intricately plotted series of murder mysteries starring the ”Skeleton Detective” and his sidekick, Chinese-American FBI agent John Lau. In this outing, the two are summoned to the South Pacific to investigate a suspicious series of mishaps on a coffee plantation owned by Lau’s prosperous relatives. Alas, there’s rather more travelogue and designer-coffee lore to this one — the title refers to ”Tahitian Blue Devil, the Highest-Priced Coffee in the World” — than genuine narrative suspense. For all of the novel’s grisly detail and shrewd deductive reasoning, both victims and suspects alike remain more figures on a chessboard than characters in a story. Terribly clever but not terribly engaging B-

Twenty Blue Devils

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