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The Violin Conspiracy

Review

The Violin Conspiracy

Debut novelist Brendan Slocumb invites readers into the competitive, passionate and racist world of classical music in THE VIOLIN CONSPIRACY, a beautifully rendered and complex novel with a fast-paced mystery at its heart.

Ray McMillian is a young Black classical violinist who has fought against all odds to continue doing what he loves best: discovering the intricacies of classical works and using his beloved violin to bring them to life, adding his own spin through pacing, energy and performance. From a young age, Ray was drawn to the instrument after hearing his grandmother share stories about her own grandfather, Leon, whose gift for the violin may have saved his life. As the black sheep of his family, Ray’s interest in music was not just misunderstood but actively discouraged, with his mother often hounding him to quit “messing around” and get a real job. His family’s criticism aside, he also has faced down historically --- and often openly --- racist institutions to earn his place in some of the country’s top orchestras, performing not just a little better than his peers, but two or three times better…and being held to impossibly high standards.

"Through his totally original premise, heartfelt love of music and a shocking tale of human greed, [Slocumb] communicates universal themes and essential truths about art, prejudice and ambition in a way that feels as pure and gorgeous as hearing a violin for the first time."

But almost none of that matters now. Ray is preparing to compete in the international Tchaikovsky Competition, a combination of the Olympics and “American Idol” that determines the best musicians in six categories. Only one American has ever placed first, and no Black Americans have placed at all, meaning that Ray has the chance to change history if he does well. With his beloved family heirloom in his hands, he has no reason to doubt himself. Until the violin is stolen from his hotel room only months before the big event.

With the competition fast approaching, Ray has no time for setbacks, but the theft has far worse repercussions: the instrument is a practically priceless Stradivarius, a hand-crafted 18th-century work of art with its own celebrity following…and a $10 million insurance policy that could make Ray, and his money-hungry family, very, very rich. The money means nothing to him, but that doesn’t stop the police, the insurance company and the court of public opinion from rapidly descending on him. As a Black man, Ray already has fought decades of racism and prejudice, but this latest development puts him --- and his instrument --- at the heart of a crime with massive global, financial and public intrigue. But this is not the first time Ray and his violin have made headlines.

For the past year, Ray has been at the crosshairs of another legal battle. The Marks family, formerly of Italy, were renowned plantation owners in the south whose ancestors once enslaved his great-great grandfather. When his master died, Leon was given not just his freedom, but the violin he often played for them. Although the Marks family has spent generations ignoring their role in the slave trade --- not to mention a simple instrument that none of them could play --- once they learn that their family heirloom is shockingly valuable, they announce that the violin was not gifted to Leon, but stolen by him during a slave uprising.

Sensing that their meal ticket could vanish overnight, Ray’s family launches their own lawsuit against Ray, claiming that he stole the violin from his older relatives. With countless suspects --- including scores of black-market art and antiquity dealers --- so many motivations, and classical music’s own inherently racist systems and structures, it seems that Ray’s career has come to a stunning and tragic halt. But Slocumb quickly turns the story into a fast-paced mystery full of twists and turns and a hero who will stop at nothing to be able to play his beloved violin again.

Slocumb is a terrific writer, and his eagerness for the subject matter leaps off every page, but in Ray he has crafted a truly perfect hero: someone vulnerable and human, yet almost supernaturally talented and full of endless potential. When he describes his love of music, the way it seems to flow through his veins, there is no reader who can’t help but fall for him. Never before have I spent so much time on YouTube while reading a book, but I doubt I will be the last person who feels like they need to hear every composition Ray plays.

However, Slocumb is just as unflinching in his accounts of the inherent racism of the classical music world. Many of the prejudices and downright abuses Ray faces are pulled from his own past; they are absolutely harrowing yet, unfortunately, not surprising. Combined with the mystery of the stolen violin, which manages to surpass even the most terrible moments of racism Ray has ever faced, these painful, poignant passages set the novel a cut above other historical mysteries and even most contemporary, issue-based books.

Ray often ruminates on his love of music, and near the end of the book, he explains that “music is truly a universal language, and that we, the listeners, will always impose our own fears and biases, our own hopes and hungers, on whatever we hear…. Music is about communication --- a way of touching your fellow man beyond and above and below language; it is a language all its own.” I can think of no better description for what Slocumb has done here. Through his totally original premise, heartfelt love of music and a shocking tale of human greed, he communicates universal themes and essential truths about art, prejudice and ambition in a way that feels as pure and gorgeous as hearing a violin for the first time.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 24, 2022

The Violin Conspiracy
by Brendan Slocumb

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0593315413
  • ISBN-13: 9780593315415