Thursday, September 3, 2009

Aaron J. Elkins' "Gideon Oliver" novels

Edgar-winner Aaron Elkins is the creator of forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver, the Skeleton Detective, and the author of many other highly praised mysteries and thrillers. His Gideon Oliver books have been selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the Literary Guild, and the Readers Digest Condensed Mystery Series.

Here he shares some background and reflections about their journey to the small screen:
Actually, my books have been made into movies--five big-production TV movies--back a few years. I think the reason so few people remember them is the same reason people supposedly forget the real pain of childbirth or dental procedures: they are too wretched to bear remembering. In 1990 (I think), ABC TV brought Columbo back for another round, along with two other shows with which it would alternate. The other shows were B.L. Stryker, with Burt Reynolds, and Gideon Oliver, with Louis Gossett, Jr., which was based--very loosely--on my Gideon Oliver series. They all flopped, deservedly, and never returned for a second season.

In my case, they changed the protagonist from white to black; they moved him from the University of Washington to Columbia University; they converted him from a physical anthropologist to a cultural anthropologist; they changed him from a joyfully married man to a widower, but gave him a nineteen-year-old daughter to compensate; and they awarded him a black belt in kick-boxing or karate--I forget which.

Other than that, of course, they stuck quite closely to my character.

They took a few interesting liberties with the tenor of my stories too. Those of you who have read my books would know that there are certain kinds of things, ugly things, I'm highly unlikely to write about, e.g., animal mutilation, satanic cults, child pornography, torture, etc. I figure if people want to read about them, all they need to do is open the newspaper. Mystery fiction, as I see it, is a way of getting away from those awful things. Well, every one of those topics turned up in the first half-hour of the first show. After that, I don't know; I quit watching. It wasn't my kind of show.

You see, unless you're John Grisham or Stephen King, when you sign a contract with Hollywood for your books, you give away all control. That's just the way it is. If you don't like it, there are plenty of other writers eager to take your place.

Am I bitter about it all? No way. I knew ahead of time how it would work, and I just left it to them; anything else would have been pointless and frustrating. They paid good money, and they paid on time. (What they paid me for is hard to understand, since they used so little of it, but I was happy to take it.) And most important, they couldn't really hurt the books. TV is TV and books are books, and readers know the difference.

So, after what they did to my work the first time, would I accept another Hollywood offer? Just try me!
Fellowship of Fear is the first Gideon Oliver novel; the latest (#16 in the series) is Skull Duggery, new in bookstores this month.

Visit Aaron J. Elkins' website.

--Marshal Zeringue