THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY
By Brendan Slocumb
Classical music stars lead surprisingly monotonous lives. They practice every day. They travel; they go through passport control; they check into hotels. They do it over and over again, a routine paced – and enhanced – by the thrill of performance. It’s remarkable, then, that a life like this should be such a page-turner in Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel, “The Violin Conspiracy,” a musical bildungsroman cleverly contained within a literary thriller.
Seemingly a mystery – about a rising star’s instrument stolen and held for a multi-million dollar ransom just days before it hoped to make history at the International Tchaikovsky Competition – this book fits in best on the shelf next to musical adulthood novels like Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark.” Both trace the sometimes imperceptible but essential stages of an artist’s development: the boredom of fundamental technique, the life-changing generosity of a mentor, the longing for relationships quietly lost along the way.
“The Violin Conspiracy,” however, adds another milestone: the loss of a precious and priceless family heirloom. And its owner, Ray McMillian, who goes from weddings to the world’s great stages, and from a rented school instrument to a legendary treasure, faces other issues regarding his violin and its provenance; the early chapters tease a settlement with Ray’s family and a lawsuit filed by people named Marks.
This confluence of crises reminds Ray of all he has overcome in life as he rises from underprivileged youth to world fame. He once had little hope of going to college, let alone a future in performance, and he has long suffered the occasional indignities of racism in music and beyond. After the theft of his violin, he thinks: “He gave life to their words. He was exactly what they said he was. Incompetent. Irresponsible.”
These thoughts are central to the novel, which begins with the theft but then traces Ray’s past for most of the remaining pages. We learn that he grew up being told by his mother that his game was just noise, but was encouraged by his grandmother. She surprised him one Christmas with her great-great-grandfather’s old violin, which was covered in rosin and needed repair after decades of languishing in his attic. According to family tradition, it was a gift that PopPop, once enslaved, received from its owner as a free man.
An evaluation later reveals that the violin is actually a Stradivarius, the stuff of violin legend. Selling it would provide a windfall – a fact lost on neither Ray’s parents nor the Marks family, insidiously polite descendants of the PopPop slaver, who are suing to get the instrument back. But Ray would never want to let go. He just wants to play. And indeed it does, under an ever-faster spotlight after the Stradivarius news broke, in a classical music industry that bears little resemblance to the real thing; orchestral programs are scheduled on short notice, and the irascibly conservative conductor Riccardo Muti is described as promoting “diversity in every program he has developed”.
Needing to ignore his racist family and co-workers, Ray develops healthy myopia. Relationships unrelated to his artistic growth fade. His unflappable discipline helps him play the part of an arrogant soloist even as he secretly feels like an impostor, or while he’s being reminded of his place in America by a cop pointing a gun at him during a police attack. a free traffic check which leads to him being detained. in jail instead of performing in Baton Rouge. If a piece like this sounds brutal, an author’s note mentions that many events in the novel “come from my own life experiences”. (Black musicians told similar stories during protests over the 2020 killing of George Floyd.)
The writing is not without flaws. A warm touch is ironically described as “like a pizzicato”, a sharp plucking of the string; a violin sits in Ray’s hands “like a wet, glistening fish”, a comparison that might register visually, but not textually. “Sluice” is an evocative verb, though too lively to appear as often as it does. And the central mystery can be solved by anyone who has seen a black Golden Age Hollywood.
However, Slocumb is not too different from his protagonist: a natural. It easily evokes the thrill of mastering a difficult musical passage and the tinnitus-like torture of everyday racism. There’s a lot of work ahead of him as he writes his second novel, but as one teacher tells Ray, “Precision and technique can be learned.” After all, it’s just practice.