Score: 91/100 (9.1 out of 10)
Death by Saxophone is an interesting hybrid between numerous different fiction genres centered around the mysterious death of a prominent jazz musician. The characters, ideas, and plot threads are blended together like ingredients in a sweet, tangy smoothie. And, like sweetness and tanginess, it becomes a matter of taste.
Death by Saxophone blends elements of cozy mystery, international travel, romance, and musical fiction. It even has a pseudo-biographical feel to it (as we'll discuss later in this review). The book largely celebrates the beauty and complexity of jazz music, specifically smooth jazz.
This book could be very exciting for musicians and/or those who are passionate about jazz music. It could be confusing or intriguing—depending on your point of view—if you fall outside that niche. Either way, you will likely discover, explore, and learn new things, not just about music, but about Cold War-era Russia and the black market. At the very least, you'll learn about Moscovium, the lesser-known 115th element.
If we were to describe this book with one term, it would be avant-garde. It really seems targeted to a certain niche of people with a very particular interest and taste.
Interestingly, we're reading and reviewing this book right off the heels of another very niche novel, The Princess, the Knight and the Lost God, which explored the game of chess in the form of a fictitious story. Likewise, this novel highlights the wonders of music and musical instruments like the eponymous saxophone and the concertina, a type of accordion that becomes the primary instrument of the lead character, Becka.
Becka (Rebecca Rifkin) is one of two lead characters in this book, the other being Jerry Zolotov, a famous jazz musician whose sudden and mysterious death on the Verrazano Bridge serves as the exciting incident for the plot. Was Jerry a “jumper” who committed suicide or was he pushed?
Now, before you go thinking that this is some kind of detective mystery where the clever character(s) with a seeing-eye glass and a khaki trench coat hunts for clues that no one else sees or understands, it's surprisingly not like that for at least 3/4ths of the book. Instead, you are given the perspectives of both Becka and Jerry (separately) and get to experience the events of the past as they did. That's why we brought up that this book has a striking pseudo-biographical feel, especially when it comes to taking Jerry's perspective. When you read about Jerry, you almost feel like you're a member of an entourage or the paparazzi following someone like John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, Elvis, or Michael Jackson. Behind the curtains, Jerry—like many famous musicians and other celebrities—is a very flawed person struggling with his own demons. Not only has he fallen into a stereotypical rockstar life of promiscuity and megalomania, but his massive wealth has tempted him to get involved in dealing on the black market.
Of special interest to Jerry (and the audience, for the sake of the plot) are special “bone records” or pirated versions of rare, banned, or nearly-unobtainable records cleverly printed on X-ray film. Jerry splurges his fortune on these and comes into possession of one very special one, displaying the name of Uliana Stalin and X-rays of the hand-bones of a little girl. Could these be the X-rays of the daughter of THE Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin? Viewing them like saintly artifacts, Jerry jumps at the opportunity to purchase the record. And, as you might have guessed, hijinks ensue.
Now, it's important to take note that there's context to this. Much of this book, particularly Jerry's flashbacks, takes place during the Cold War. At that time, western music was treated as contraband in the USSR and certain records could only be obtained illegally. So, there is precedence for Jerry valuing these illegal records to the extent that he does.
The other half of the book concerns Becka's perspective. When we first meet her, we're in medes res, finding that Becka is a huge fan of jazz and Jerry Zolotov. Well, it turns out that her hero, Jerry, is now dead after last being seen playing his saxophone at the edge of the Verrazano Bridge in New York as some sort of publicity stunt. The wheels immediately start turning and Becka, along with the audience, begins wondering if he might have been pushed and, thus, murdered.
However, rather than focusing exclusively on Becka's hunt for the truth, we actually get a romantic tie-in story exploring the relationship between Becka and her enigmatic Russian lover, Pyotr (Peter). We also learn about Becka's budding love for music as she becomes proficient at playing a soup-up accordion called a concertina, which she names Athena.
Now, if you don't initially catch that Becka's musical instrument is personified and has a name, you're in trouble because the author constantly refers to Athena as if “she” were a real person, even having “her” own things. This isn't too unusual since musicians are known to name their instruments, but it can seem a bit bizarre and confusing to some. Similarly, Jerry's prized saxophone is called "Violet" and is one of the key motifs in the book.
Anyway, we originally felt like there was no way Becka was going to be anywhere near as interesting or good a character as Jerry, but she definitely holds her own. She reminds us a lot of Julie Scolnik, a real-life musician (performing violinist) and author of Paris Blue--a memoir we read last year. Like Scolnik, Becka is caught between countries, caught between worlds, entranced by music, and enraptured by the love for an exotic, foreign man who seems to promise her a dream life outside of her existing one. All the while, she battles for self-sufficiency. Somehow, someway, the author is able to tie these large, meandering, deviating plot threads together, which is impressive in itself.
With all that said, this book feels a lot longer than it really is. It's actually quite exhausting to read, and it's hard to explain why. Usually, when we read a story, one thing leads to another thing which leads to another thing. There's a flow to it. The flow of this book is rather... bumpy. Your attention is torn between the two protagonists, the two time frames, and the two deviating plot lines.
Let's say you're used to musical jargon, that's fine, but what about unfamiliar concepts like “bone records” and other elements like Russian culture? The more times you have to stop to look up something, the more your reading flow is interrupted. Things could've been better explained for the layman who doesn't understand these concepts. Pacing also became a big issue. There are times in this book when the plot seems a bit stuck in a rut, when the author dwells on a few people talking or doing stuff instead of advancing things. With that said, it isn't nearly as bad as people constantly sitting around and eating in Fifty-Three Tuesdays.
Many of us started and stopped reading this book a number of times before we were able to push through and finish it. It might just be one of those books that's so dense, it can become frustrating. You can't rush this book. You need to slow down and be patient as it develops.
Fun fact: this isn't the first musical fiction book we've read in the past few months (and, yes, musical fiction is an actual genre). The Devil Pulls the Strings by ZW Zarek followed a guitarist who could understand the cryptic plot due to his knowledge of music. There's even a prominent figure mentioned in both books: Paganini.
The last thing we wanted to say is that the author definitely demonstrates a high level of sophistication in their writing. For instance, you have descriptions like “a bolus of pain” and words like tangentially. The presentation is very high-end and classy.
You might really end up enjoying or even loving this book, particularly if you have a passion for music and/or mystery novels.
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