‘The Violin Conspiracy’ is a musical thriller with some unexpected notes

By Brendan Slocumb

Classical music stars lead surprisingly monotonous lives. They practice every day. They travel; they are subject to passport control; they check in to the hotel. They do it over and over, a routine that is terminated – and made worthwhile – by the thrill of performance. So it’s remarkable that a life like this makes such a flipping page in Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel, “The Violin Conspiracy,” a musical nested within a horror film. literary ingenuity.

Apparently a mystery – about a rising star’s musical instrument being stolen and held for millions of dollars just days before he hoped to make history at the International Tchaikovsky Competition – the book This book sits more neatly on the shelf next to the upcoming musical novels like “The Song of the Lark” by Willa Cather. Both chart the sometimes imperceptible but necessary development steps of an artist: the tediousness of foundational engineering, the life-changing generosity of a mentor, the wistfulness of relationships quietly lost along the way.

However, “The Violin Conspiracy” goes one step further: the loss of an heirloom that is both valuable and priceless. And its owner, Ray McMillian, who has gone from weddings to the world’s major stages, and from a rented school instrument to an old treasure, faces other problems around the tree. violin and its origin; The first chapters tease about a settlement with the Ray family and a lawsuit from people named Marks.

This mixture of crises reminds Ray of all that he has overcome in life as he rises from a disadvantaged youth to global fame. He once had little hope of college, little future of performing, and he has long endured frequent outrage about racism in music and beyond. After his violin was stolen, he thought, “He brought their words to life. He is true to what they say. Not enough ability. Irresponsible.”

Such reflections are at the heart of the novel, beginning with the theft but then recreating Ray’s past for most of the remaining pages. We know that he grew up being told by his mother that his play was just noise, but he was encouraged by his grandmother. One Christmas, she surprised him with her great-grandfather’s old violin, built in turpentine and in need of repair after decades of weariness in her attic. According to family lore, it was a gift PopPop, a former slave, received from his master while still a free man.

A later examination revealed that the instrument was indeed a Stradivarius, the legendary object of the violin. Its sale would bring in a fortune – a truth lost for Ray’s relatives and the Marks family, the insidious polite descendants of PopPop’s slaves who sued to get the guitar back. . But Ray would never want to give it up. He just wanted to play. And indeed he does, under the rapidly growing attention after news of Stradivarius went viral, in a classical music industry that bears little resemblance to the real thing; Orchestra programs are scheduled at short notice, and hardline conservative conductor Riccardo Muti has been described as promoting “diversity in every program he has developed”.

Needing to ignore his family and racist colleagues, Ray developed a healthy myopia. Relationships unrelated to his artistic development faded. His unapproachable discipline helps him play the part of a cocksure soloist even when he secretly feels like a con man, or when he is reminded of his place in America. by a cop who pulled a gun on him during an unprovoked traffic stop that resulted in being held in jail instead of performing in Baton Rouge. If such an installation seems one-sided, an author’s note mentions that many of the events in the novel “come from my own life experience.” (Black musicians have told similar stories during protests over the murder of George Floyd in 2020.)

The text is not without its flaws. A warm touch is ironically described as “pizzicato-like”, a dry pluck of a string; a violin is in Ray’s hand “like a wet, sparkling fish,” a metaphor that’s visually recognizable, but not textured. “Sluice” is an evocative verb, although too vivid to appear often. And the central mystery can be solved by anyone who has watched Hollywood dramas of the golden age.

However, Slocumb is not so different from his main character: naturally. He easily evokes the thrill of mastering a difficult piece of music and the tinnitus-like torture of everyday racism. There’s a lot of work ahead as he writes his second novel, but as one teacher told Ray, “Accuracy and technique can be learned.” After all, it’s just practice.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/01/books/review/the-violin-conspiracy-brendan-slocumb.html ‘The Violin Conspiracy’ is a musical thriller with some unexpected notes

Fry Electronics Team

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