Death by Saxophone, The Year’s Best Mystery

The Bottom LineWinner, Best Mystery, The Book Awards. Highly recommended.. 

There’s no way to properly describe Death by Saxophone without first defining the object of its characters’ obsession: black market recordings called “bone records.” Also called “ribs,” bone records are bootlegged gramophone recordings first made from X-ray films as a way to smuggle banned music in and out of the Soviet Union. 

When smooth jazz icon Jerry Zolotov learns about the existence of bone records from an uncle in Ukraine, he becomes consumed with owning one. At a time when Jerry’s reputation and sales are on the rocks, he devotes himself to finding and purchasing “the rarest one of all” – even at the steep price of $2.7 million. 

Meanwhile, American radiology tech Becka Rifkin reconnects with love interest and theremin player Pyotr Fisheleff. Through a series of events, Pyotr connects Becka with someone who may be able to get her a rare copy of one of her favorites, Polka Dots + Moonbeams. But the music itself turns out to be far less interesting than the object. Rumor has it that the recording is embedded within an x-ray linked to one of Russia’s most notorious leaders. It’s fair to say that some would kill to keep the long-dead strongman’s secret. 

Becka then learns something even more staggering – a historically related bone record has been purchased by none other than musician Jerry Zolotov, now deceased. Knowing what she does, Becka can’t help but wonder – was it really suicide, or was Jerry murdered? 

In Becka, author Debbie Burke has created a wholly human and fully developed protagonist whose emotions range from grief to attraction and fear throughout. A patient storyteller, Burke resists the temptation to tell Jerry and Becka’s stories in complete parallel, preferring instead to devote long stretches to both – a tactic that pays off in terms of suspense and momentum, especially as Becka navigates Russia. Her relationship with Pyotr alternates between quirky and adorable, giving the novel an appealing offbeat tone. Throughout, the book is filled with deliciously unconventional people and instruments (for all her other virtues, Becka also turns out to be an accordion player). True jazz nerds will appreciate Burke’s positioning of the smooth jazz genre as a somewhat guilty yet worthy pleasure, while simultaneously throwing out references to all-time great mainstreamers like Dinah Shore.

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