Book Review: 'Nothing But the Bones' is a compelling noir novel at a breakneck pace

Nelson “Nails” McKenna isn’t very bright, stumbles over his words and often says what he’s thinking without realizing it.

We first meet him as a boy reading a superhero comic on the banks of a river in his backcountry hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia. There, a bully picks on him and then does the same to a pretty girl Nails secretly fancies. Enraged, Nails, ignorant of his own strength, gives the bully a fatal beating.

Nails’ friend Clayton Burroughs, who watches it happen, doesn’t call the police. Instead, he calls his brutal father, Gareth, who runs the rackets on Bull Mountain, to cover it up.

So begins “Nothing But the Bones,” a prequel to the first three Southern noir novels in Brian Panowich’s critically acclaimed Bull Mountain series.

After the killing, the story skips forward nine years and finds history repeating itself. Nails, now working as an enforcer for Gareth, is drinking apple juice in a seedy bar when he sees a punk mistreating a young woman. Moments later, the punk lies dead on the barroom floor.

There are too many witnesses for Gareth to fix things this time. Instead, he hands Nails a bag of cash, orders him to head south, and gives him a phone number to call when he gets to Jacksonville, Florida. As Nails speeds away, he discovers the young woman, a fellow outcast who calls herself Dallas, hiding in the backseat. She persuades a reluctant Nails to take her with him, and as they drive on, an unlikely love story emerges. As readers learn Dallas’s backstory, it becomes clear that they need each other.

When Clayton hears what’s happened, he’s knows that his father, who avoids legal entanglements at all costs, hasn’t sent Nails away for a new start. Nails is driving to his death. So, in defiance of his father, Clayton heads for Jacksonville to save his friend. Their friendship may remind readers of George Milton and Lennie Small in John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella, “Of Mice and Men” — although Nails isn’t as limited as Lennie.

The compelling tale, its tone alternately brutal and tender, unfolds at a breakneck pace. The character development is superb, the settings are vivid, and the prose is as tight as a noose. The plot is full of twists. Among them is a startling revelation about Dallas’s identity, introducing a sensitive subject that Panowich handles with understanding and grace.


Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including “The Dread Line.”


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