Skull Music


The hallmark of any of Rich Zahradnik novel is a powerful sense of time and place that is far more than a one-dimensional backdrop for the characters and action of the story.

So it is with his latest mystery, The Bone Records. Zahradnik’s rich descriptions of the faded glory of Coney Island and the threadbare decline of surrounding neighborhoods collectively known as Little Odessa create a vivid landscape for the lonely and desperate quest of Grigg Orlov to find his father’s killers.

Orlov is a racial outcast in the Russian enclave he stubbornly calls home. His father was a Russian emigre, but his mother was Jamaican. He’s stigmatized and downtrodden, forced to sell the home he shared with his father. He’s also crippled, his left leg badly damaged following a vicious attack by masked police academy classmates that forced him to give his dream of becoming a New York cop.

All of this makes him an unlikely hero facing long odds that favor failure. But there’s something gloomily dogged about Orlov, a decidedly fatalistic and utterly Russian determination to find out why a ginger-haired killer kicked down his front door just as his missing father was slipping in through the back door to say goodbye before returning to Russia, chasing them both across rooftops before gunning down dad.

All Orlov has to go on is a rolled-up tube bound by a rubber band his father gave him. And his dying old man’s final instructions — go to Katia Sokolov, his teenage sweetheart, the girl he abandoned a year ago. Unrolling the tube leads to more mystery — it’s an old X-ray of a skull with circular grooves cut into one side of the film and a hole punched in the middle.

Alfred Hitchcock would call this the MacGuffin of the story, the object of desire that binds together the characters and the narrative. Think of the black bird of The Maltese Falcon. In Zahradnik’s story, the MacGuffin is called a bone record, a throwback to the end times of the old Soviet Union when hipsters, jazz addicts and rock rebels would cut forbidden tunes on the back of old X-rays and circulate them underground.

This bone record has Not Fade Away scrawled on it but doesn’t say whether it’s the Buddy Holly original or the cover by The Rolling Stones. Orlov remembers the day his father got it in the mail, opened the envelope then froze in fear when he realized what it was. A calling card from the past. He disappeared that night.

Swallowing his pride and shame, Orlov goes to Katia, whose own father is dead but was a close friend of Orlov’s father, a fellow emigre from the Soviet Union. The star-crossed lovers rekindle their romance and chase after answers that lead them through a deadly and complex maze of computer hackers, Russian mobsters, crooked cops and a shipping container full of cash and gold bullion.

There’s also the long arm of Vladimir Putin and the security thugs he sends to track down this stolen lucre.

But at the heart of this story is the MacGuffin, the bone records that represent ancient betrayal resurrected and stalking the present.

— Jim Nesbitt, author of the Ed Earl Burch hard-boiled Texas crime thriller series

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