Skip to main content

Musical Mysteries: The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

As a nod to the other BWR blog posts written on mystery novels, here’s a recommendation for a musical mystery. The Violin Conspiracy is a story about a stolen Stradivarius. Like any high art item, instruments of this caliber make the news when lost or stolen. The premise has precedent in John Meade Falkner’s 1895 novel, The Lost Stradivarius. The Conspiracy’s heist is certainly interesting, and the investigation takes up a lot of air time. However, much of the story is not about the theft, but the mystery of how the protagonist ended up with the prized instrument in the first place. Brendan Slocumb lays out the moment of rupture, when Ray McMillan opens his violin case after returning from New York City and finds a ransom note and a sneaker instead of his violin. At this point, Ray is a contender for the world’s most prestigious music competition, The Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. (The Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the competition’s status.) I was gripped by Slocumb’s positioning of the character in such a predicament, and like any good mystery novel, I had a lot of questions.

(I am happy to report that my guess for the thief turned out to be correct in the end.)

The book features beautiful storytelling of how Ray matured as a Black musician in an environment that was largely hostile to his musical activities. The stories of struggling to get proper equipment and mistreatment by racist clients at wedding gigs was particularly upsetting to read given that I have walked through the specialized experience of being a classical musician, without such hardship. Slocumb articulates his purpose in writing the novel as hoping to shed light on the real experiences that Black classical musicians have faced. He offers the statistics: “1.8 percent of musicians performing in classical symphonies are Black; 12 percent are people of color.” The book presents this representation through storytelling, with the aim of inspiring paradigm shifts. Slocumb, a musician and educator, clearly loves music deeply and his passion for sharing the profound experiences music can bring is evident.

The most poignant aspect to the story is Ray’s connection to his grandmother, the only member of his family that appreciates his music-making. He talks about the way that she listens, leaning back in her chair and savoring every note. Just after finishing the book, I traveled to visit my 93-year-old grandfather in upstate New York. I played a few pieces for him, including Massanet’s Meditation from Thaïs. Afterward, my brother told me that my grandfather was “blissing out” to my playing. There is nothing like the sort of unconditional listening that a grandparent can give. Throughout the story, long after his grandmother has passed, Ray continues to play as if she were in the audience.

Is the book only fulfilling to read if you’re a musician? I’m not sure. I think it’s accessible to an extent if you’re curious about classical music. It would be enjoyable to listen to the musical selections as you read the book, to encounter new music. Additionally, the internal monologue when overcoming adversity under pressure is powerful regardless of the context:

“Bring it. Just f***ing bring it. Stand tall, Grandma Nora had told him: he would stand tall, with the spotlights shining on his face, and his music would pour into all their ears, and they would understand that no matter what anybody threw at him, he was not going away. He was not stooping to their level. The air-conditioning could go off and he could melt. They could toss any piece of crappy music they wanted at him and he would play. He would not be ignored or denied or embarrassed ever again: he was a musician, and music had no color.” (148)

Other musical mysteries at RUL: