The Violin Conspiracy

Does the instrument make the musician?

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb. Anchor Books. pp.352. $28

Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy, tells the story of Ray McMillian, a young black violinist who discovers a lost family secret that beggars belief—a genuine Stradivarius violin in his grandmother’s attic, worth more than ten million dollars. Ray knows it was meant for him, but his money-obsessed family has other plans. But that isn’t the end of it. The wealthy Marks family claims that the violin was stolen from them after the end of the Civil War by Ray’s great-great-grandfather (known as “PopPop”) who played the fiddle and is thus the rightful inheritance of their young daughter, herself an aspiring musician. 

Of course, the question of whom the violin belongs to quickly becomes purely academic as the violin is stolen from Ray’s hotel room in New York, right out of its case. Who did it? The Marks? Ray’s own family? And with only months to go before the international Tchaikovsky Competition—which for classical musicians is like “The Voice” meets Wimbledon—will Ray and the police be able to find it in time? The power of the violin itself is amazing. Even if it’s cracked and worn and needing repair, it launches Ray to stardom. Without his violin, though, Ray feels, “incompetent,” like he’s back playing at weddings, not Carnegie Hall.

This one is a page-turner very much in the spirit of Ned Bauman’s The Teleportation Accident. Through the whole story, we are not only pulled along by the mystery of the theft but by the trajectory of Ray’s career. There’s something satisfying watching his confidence build alongside his musical skill—and yet he never grows cocky or condescending. The commentary on prejudice and systemic abuse is quite pointed, often subtle, and just as often not. Ray’s experiences no doubt resonate with many musicians.

The characters are distinct and charming (even when you dislike them, you enjoy disliking them). Grandma Nena overflows with gooey warmth and encouragement for her grandson; she’s the one who gives him the violin whereas his own mother says his playing is noise. And Lobelia Marks is top-to-bottom horrible in an almost satisfying way—a credible character that doesn’t feeling flat or one-sided. The dialogue is well constructed, helping to maintain a crisp pace, as well as bringing the characters even further to life through their various voices and relationships. The Violin Conspiracy delights about eighty-five percent of the time.

The other fifteen percent—that falls a bit short—comes from three things. The first is the musical terminology. While the words are often fun to say, like “pizzicato” and “tremolo”, they are often thrown in without context or explanation. If you already know what they mean, good for you. But for those of us who aren’t musical experts, it’s a bit of a stumbling block.

The second thing is the book’s occasional treatment of women. Every year, the tendency becomes more and more grating; describing women primarily in terms of their bodies, and describing their bodies primarily in terms of similarly shaped objects. Ray referring to his girlfriend as a “violin-shaped woman” when he’s missing his stolen violin stands out, as does his joke about finding all the “Moscow hotties” (whom he never actually goes looking for, but Slocumb feels the need to tell us that he found them nonetheless). Hopefully his next book (on which he is currently working) breaks this habit. 

The third thing—and the one perhaps worth the most consideration—is the resolution to the mystery itself. Through the whole book we wonder whether it was Ray’s relatives who stole the violin to sell it, or the descendants of the Marks Family who stole the violin, or maybe it was the brooding Serbian violinist who stole it to sink his rival’s chances. Again and again, our theory switches as more and more information keeps moving around. 

And then, finally, we learn the answer. We scratch our heads. We groan. We shrug. We put down the book. Mystery reader will not be too surprised, but perhaps Slocumb is focused on the relationships and the memories of Ray’s past that the loss of the violin awakens—not just simply the criminal.

Whether it’s the eighty-five percent or the fifteen percent which wins out very much depends on the reader. If you’re here for character-driven work, great dialogue, feel-good moments, and quite a few laughs, you’ll probably love The Violin Conspiracy. If you’ve signed up for a tense, satisfying mystery, there is a whole section at Barnes and Noble devoted to them. Near the end though, Ray says that: “music is truly a universal language […] a way of touching your fellow man beyond and above and below language.” And this is perhaps what matters most.

Buy a copy at The Bookshop.

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