Late last year is when I first heard about The Violin Conspiracy, the debut novel by Brendan Slocumb. As soon as I read the summary, I was sold; I pre-ordered it immediately. While I awaited its release day, The Violin Conspiracy became the inspiration for my February reading challenge: books about Black musicians. Needless to say, as soon as the book arrived, I dove right in.
The Violin Conspiracy begins with the action: Ray, a classical violinist about to participate in a prestigious competition, discovers that his heirloom Stradivarius violin has been stolen, with a ransom note demanding $5 million. The mystery kicks in immediately, with Ray hunting for clues and wracking his brain for anything he may have missed. His stress and fear are visceral, and the number of enemies he has is enough to make for a wide pool of suspects.
After that initial shock, the book goes back in time, building up Ray’s past and giving context for the foes he’s attained. He grew up in a poor family in rural North Carolina, and despite his obvious skill and love for violin, the odds were stacked against him. He couldn’t afford his own violin or private lessons, and his mother was anything but supportive, constantly telling him to stop making noise and spend his time better: by earning a paycheck and helping with rent. She even goes so far as to demand he drop out of high school and earn his keep; college is out of the question in her mind. On top of all this, Ray is Black, and he must constantly contend with racism. It’s not just in North Carolina; it’s everywhere he goes, and rampant within the classical music world. Nevertheless, Ray works his way up as a professional violinist.
Ray is a wonderful character: kind, considerate, ambitious, hard-working, and deeply in love with music and violin. He loves his family, especially his Grandma Nora. Out of his whole family, she’s easily the best one to him. She encourages his music education and career goals, and ends up gifting him an old fiddle that’s been in the family for generations. Imagine Ray’s surprise when he learns it’s actually a Stradivarius! It’s both rare and valuable.
This violin is his greatest joy, but it also leads to a lot of problems. His greedy family come out of the woodworks, demanding he sell it and give them the money. Besides Ray’s Grandma Nora and his Aunt Rochelle, I hated his whole family, especially his mother. What horrid people they all are. In my opinion, Ray is too nice to them. He should just cut all contact with them.
There’s also the awful Marks family claiming ownership of the Stradivarius. Apparently, their slaveowner ancestor is the one who gave the violin to Ray’s great-great-grandfather, himself enslaved until the late 1860s. It’s a pretty clear example of racism: slaveowners trying to take back from enslaved peoples? Yikes.
And indeed, racism is a major theme in The Violin Conspiracy. I love how this book explores the complexities of Ray’s experience as a Black musician. He is one of the few people of color in classical music, and he faces racism in a variety of circumstances: at school with racist teachers and classmates; during auditions; when trying to perform at a wedding; when taking his violin to get fixed. As the author has mentioned in interviews, many of these scenes are drawn from his own real experiences. Sadly, racism is ever prevalent.
With all that’s pulling Ray down, I love that he finds a caring mentor in Janice. She continuously lifts him up, infuses him with greater confidence, and opens up doors to him to help his career take off the way he deserves it to. She’s a treasure and one of the only allies he has.
Eventually, the background story catches up with the moment Ray’s violin was stolen. By now, we readers have enough clues to help us draw our own conclusions, even if there are some red herrings. Ray makes it to Moscow to compete in the Tchaikovsky Competition. Those scenes are fun! However, Ray is still hunting for possible clues to his missing violin, and we get a quick trip to Serbia. There are so many possibilities surrounding this valuable violin, and Ray has more than enough people in his life who want it or the money it’s worth. Near the end I had my suspicions about who the culprit would be, and I was pleased to ultimately be right! I great enjoyed the journey to get there.
I loved reading The Violin Conspiracy. It’s an engaging and thoughtful mystery, and it weaves in themes of racism, classical music, and family. It’s a powerful debut, and I can’t wait to read Brendan Slocumb’s next book!
You can buy The Violin Conspiracy here – it’s available as a hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
|The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb|
|Number of Pages||338|
|Format I Read||Hardcover|
|Original Publication Date||February 1, 2022|
Growing up Black in rural North Carolina, Ray McMillian’s life is already mapped out. But Ray has a gift and a dream—he’s determined to become a world-class professional violinist, and nothing will stand in his way. Not his mother, who wants him to stop making such a racket; not the fact that he can’t afford a violin suitable to his talents; not even the racism inherent in the world of classical music.
When he discovers that his beat-up, family fiddle is actually a priceless Stradivarius, all his dreams suddenly seem within reach, and together, Ray and his violin take the world by storm. But on the eve of the renowned and cutthroat Tchaikovsky Competition—the Olympics of classical music—the violin is stolen, a ransom note for five million dollars left in its place. Without it, Ray feels like he’s lost a piece of himself. As the competition approaches, Ray must not only reclaim his precious violin, but prove to himself—and the world—that no matter the outcome, there has always been a truly great musician within him.
About the Author
Brendan Nicholaus Slocumb was born in Yuba City, California and was raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He holds a degree in music education (with concentrations in violin and viola) from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. For more than twenty years he has been a public and private school music educator and has performed with orchestras throughout Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC.
In his spare time, Brendan enjoys writing, exercising, collecting comic books and action figures, and performing with his rock band, Geppetto’s Wüd.
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