When I opened Brendan Slocumb’s first novel, “The Violin Conspiracy”, I was immediately transported to a place I had never been, surrounded by characters I had never met. In the crowded world of fiction, that’s no small feat. Drawing inspiration from his daily job as a music teacher, Slocumb orchestrated a gripping and suspenseful story about a budding musician and his great-great-grandfather’s violin.
Rayquan (who prefers to be called Ray) McMillian is a high school student with high aspirations. His mother, who doesn’t understand her son’s obsession with “that violin”, wants him to graduate early so he can get a job to help pay the bills. “You could have made a lot of money at Popeyes by now,” she told him. But Ray loves to play the violin, and he plays it well. If Ray was a white teenager, he would be considered a prodigy, but most people don’t take this young black violinist seriously.
At first, there is only one person who believes in Ray – his grandmother Nora, who revels in the musical gift of her favorite grandson. She encourages Ray to follow his passion because she understands it. “You know my PopPop played the violin, right? I loved to hear it when I was a little girl,” she tells her grandson. “That’s where you get your talent from.”
PopPop, Nora’s grandfather, was a slave who played the violin for his slaver, Thomas Marks. “He knew playing the violin kept him and his family alive, baby,” Nora told Ray. Once PopPop was released, Marks gave him the violin. Since then, the instrument has been passed down from generation to generation, although it has never been used. But maybe, Nora thinks, that could change: she finds the instrument in the attic and presents it to Ray.
The young man knows that he has been given a treasure, even if it is a dirty mess with cracked, missing and deformed parts. Ray finds a way to restore it, and the instrument becomes his companion to becoming a classically trained violinist who performs all over the country but doesn’t miss the chance to blast Eric B. & Rakim when he rolls alone in his car. Trouble begins when Ray starts auditioning and plans to upgrade his violin only to find that PopPop’s was no ordinary violin. It’s an 18th century Stradivarius worth around $10 million.
Ray caused a sensation (largely thanks to his violin), especially when he decided to participate in the Tchaikovsky Competition, one of the most prestigious classical music tournaments. For two years Ray did little more than tour and train in preparation; his greatest desire is to become the first American to win in his category. It would be a major achievement. Never before has there been someone like Rayquan McMillian – a young black American man with a Stradivarius violin standing tall on the world stage.
Then, two weeks before the competition, Ray opens his violin case to find only a white Chuck Taylor sneaker and a ransom note.
The police and the FBI are brought in, but where should Ray and the authorities start? Along with Ray’s family, who’s been trying to cash in on the violin since its real value was discovered? Or with members of the Marks family, descendants of slavers who now claim that the violin belongs to them? Everyone is suspicious and time is running out.
“The Violin Conspiracy” is so wonderfully written, especially its descriptions of the music, that at times I wondered if I was reading or listening to a concert; the notes of Bach’s Chaconne or Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 21 in E minor floated practically pages. Slocumb is equally adept at suspense, whether it conveys the ticking of the main mystery or the thrilling, heart-pounding realities that Ray must face as a young black man in America. This novel, which will keep readers in suspense until the very last page, will certainly be a favorite in 2022.
Victoria Christopher Murray is the author of over 20 novels. She recently co-wrote the bestselling novel “The Personal Librarian”. She will be at Club Book at 7 p.m. on March 22.
The Violin Plot
By: Brendan Slocumb.
Publisher: Anchor Books, 352 pages, $28.
Event: Club Book, 7 p.m. March 8, streamed live on Facebook/clubbook.